When Anthony “Tony” Thompson founded Kwame Building Group in 1991, the country was in an economic recession.
Undeterred, the young, first-time business owner went ahead and transformed his business into what would become a force in the construction industry.
While some business leaders downplay the region’s progress and some civic leaders worry about its future, Thompson has remained a steadfast champion of an economic future that embraces diversity and inclusion, knowing that they are essential to the economic prosperity of the region.
While some companies are moving from the city of St. Louis to other parts of the region and beyond, Thompson’s KBG headquarters remains downtown, as it has been for three decades.
For his persistence, community outreach, philanthropy, and global efforts to create educational and economic opportunities for St. Louis youth, Thompson was named the 2021 U.S. Person of the Year from St. Louis.
After graduating from University City High School in 1978, Thompson headed west for pragmatic reasons to the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas.
“KU had the best architectural program in the area and was one of the few to offer architectural engineering,” said Thompson, 62.
“I also paid fees in the state due to a reciprocal program with the Missouri dental school.”
Unlike many other black college graduates, Thompson immediately returned to St. Louis due to “family ties.”
Thompson said his family has always been his everything and is the key to his success.
” It is my family ? which motivates me and without the support of my wife Kim, my son Mike and my daughter Kristin I wouldn’t be able to accomplish the things I have accomplished, ”he said.
Thompson’s mother, civic and political icon, Betty Thompson, died in July. Her advice, along with the wisdom of her father, Jack Thompson, has been instrumental in her life and career.
“I had a balance in my life. My mom loved and tried to help everyone. His compassion was unprecedented. She would give her last dollar to help someone, ”he said.
“My dad has a work ethic and knowledge of so many different things that it always amazes me that he didn’t finish college until I got my masters degree and my brother finished his studies. right.”
Thompson received a master’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Washington and an MBA in finance from Webster University after earning the respective degrees of architectural engineering and environmental design at KU.
Prior to founding Kwame Building Group, Thompson worked as a project, mechanical and construction engineer at Anheuser-Busch Companies, Monsanto Chemical Company, and US Army Corps of Engineers, respectively.
In 1990, Thompson felt ready to start his own business.
“I always wanted to have my own business. I just didn’t know if it would be design or build. Therefore, I did a bit of both and took the construction management path after working for the world’s largest brewery for almost 10 years, ”he said.
It didn’t take another decade for Thompson’s company to gain respect locally and nationally. KBG manages construction projects valued at over $ 250 million per year and is a pioneer in public and private sector projects including educational institutions, major airports, light rail systems, hospitals, wastewater treatment facilities and government buildings.
Outside of the St. Louis headquarters, there are divisional offices in Atlanta, Austin, Dallas, Houston, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, and Seattle.
He calls the company’s work on the east terminal of Southwest Airlines’ Lambert International Airport and the Northshore Connector light rail in Pittsburgh as “big-ticket” projects for Kwame.
While his business is strong, Thompson said every day of his 30 years at the helm hasn’t been perfect. When the going gets tough, her advice is to “keep your head down and your shoulders against the steering wheel”.
“I was able to attract some really smart and talented people in the early years. I have been fortunate to have very little turnover over the past 30 years, which is both a blessing and a curse. These people have retired, are about to retire, or are deceased, ”said Thompson.
“Many of my majority counterparts have made successful succession transitions over a few generations.
“It’s new for minority businesses. It was difficult. I have had more turnover in the past year than in the past 25 years. The good news is, now is a great time to plan for the next 30 years. New hires may see an upward mobility trajectory. Failure should test you, not defeat you.
Throughout the life of the company, Thompson has insisted that its staff be diverse and inclusive.
“Tony challenges everything because he says, ‘If I can find diverse staff, why not everyone,” said Kathy Osborne, President of the Regional Business Council in the Kwame 30th Anniversary publication.
Kwame board member Stuart Block said Thompson’s cabinet “is very involved in the black community. Whether through volunteering, Tony always seeks to help young people mentor.
Education is vital to meeting challenges in business or any profession, which is why Thompson generously supports Webster University, Maryville University, and Harris-Stowe State University through scholarships.
“For decades, Webster has benefited from the generous and compassionate leadership of Tony Thompson as a trustee, scholarship donor, mentor, and advocate for Webster’s long-standing commitments to diversity, equity and social justice. inclusion, ”said Elizabeth J. Stroble, Chancellor of Webster University.
Thompson calls education “the true equalizer when it comes to racial disparity.”
“For minorities to have a real chance to realize the American dream, we need to be educated. Life is hard, even more difficult if you are stupid, ”he said.
Since 2003, the Kwame Foundation has endowed over $ 1.5 million in scholarships and grants at over 12 different universities. The foundation serves students of all races, with a focus on minority students “who are bright, talented and high performing individuals but who might not otherwise have the opportunity to study in education. higher, ”according to Thompson.
In an interview with The American, Thompson reflected on what is needed for the future success of St. Louis and its residents:
Q: If you could snap your fingers and improve St. Louis, what would you like to see?
A: A reformed police force and improved education system that have the same high expectations as all students in the state.
Q: What advice would you share with aspiring black youth?
A: Never let fear of failure stand in the way of action and keep expectations high
Q: Your annual golf tournament raises thousands of dollars for scholarships. When did you learn to play?
A: I learned to play while working for a company and really got a taste for it once I got into the business world. Not only is it difficult, but I often go out on my own to get away from everything and everyone to think and strategize. It helped me get through my brother’s death [Tyrone Thompson], the death of a nephew and a mother. I can have an ugly cry out loud.
Q: Final thoughts?
A: What I would like people to know is that your life has been your parents’ gift to you. What you make with it is your gift to them. Neither of us succeeded until we all did, and you can’t stack too many enemies at once.