When Anthony “Tony” Thompson founded Kwame Building Group in 1991, the nation was in an economic recession.
Undeterred, the young, first-time business owner forged ahead and crafted his business into what would become a force in the construction industry.
While some business leaders belittle the area’s progress and some civic leaders fret about its future, Thompson has remained a steadfast champion for an economic future that embraces diversity and inclusion, knowing they are essential for the region to economically prosper.
As some businesses depart the city of St. Louis for other areas in the region and beyond, the head office for Thompson’s KBG remains downtown, just as where it has been for three decades.
For his perseverance, community outreach, philanthropy, and overall effort to create educational and economic opportunities for young St. Louisans, Thompson has been named The St. Louis American 2021 Person of the Year.
After graduation 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 only a handful that provided Architectural Engineering,” Thompson, 62, explained.
“I also paid in-state fees due to a reciprocity program with Missouri’s dental school.”
Unlike many other Black college graduates, Thompson returned immediately to St. Louis because of “family ties.”
Thompson said his family has always been everything to him and is the key factor behind his success.
“My family it is? what drives me and had it not been for the support of my wife Kim, son Mike and daughter Kristin, I would not be able to accomplish the things I have accomplished,” he said.
Thompson’s mother, civic and political icon Betty Thompson passed away in July. Her guidance, along with the wisdom of his father, Jack Thompson, were instrumental in his life and career.
“I had a balance in my life. My mother loved and tried to help everyone. Her compassion was unparalleled. She would give away her last dollar to help someone,” he said.
“My dad has a work ethic and knowledge about so many different things that it still amazes me that he did not finish college until I got my master’s and my brother completed law school.”
Thompson received a MSc in Civil Engineering from Washington University, and an MBA in Finance from Webster University after earning respective Architectural Engineering and Environmental Design degrees at KU.
Before founding Kwame Building Group, Thompson worked as a project, mechanical and construction engineer at Anheuser-Busch Companies, Monsanto Chemical Company, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, respectively.
In 1990, Thompson felt prepared to create his own business.
“I always wanted to have my own business. I just didn’t know if it would be design or construction. Therefore, I did a little of both, and decided on the construction management route after working for the world’s largest brewery for nearly 10 years,” he said.
It did not take another decade for Thompson’s firm to become respected on locally and at national level. KBG manages construction projects valued at more than $250 million annually and is a trendsetter in public and private sector projects including educational facilities, major airports, light-rail systems, hospitals, wastewater treatment facilities and government buildings.
Outside of the St. Louis headquarters, there are division offices in Atlanta, Austin, Dallas, Houston, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, and Seattle.
He calls the firm’s work on the Southwest Airlines Lambert International Airport East Terminal and the Northshore Connector Light Rail in Pittsburgh as “the big break” projects for Kwame.
While his business is solid, Thompson said every day of his 30 years at the helm has not been perfect. When things get tough, his advice is to “keep your head down and shoulder to the wheel.”
“I was able to attract some really smart and talented people in the early years. I was fortunate to have very little turnover over the past 30 years, which is both a blessing and a curse. Those individuals have retired, are close to retirement or passed away,” Thompson said.
“Many of my majority firm counterparts have made successful transitions of succession over a couple generations
“This is new for minority firms. It has been tough. I have had more turnover in the last year than in the last 25 years. The good news is this is a great time to plan for the next 30 years. New hires can see a pathway of upward mobility. Failure should test you, not defeat you.”
Throughout the company’s life, Thompson has insisted his staff be diverse and inclusive.
“Tony challenges all because he says, ‘if I can find diverse personnel, why can’t everybody,” Kathy Osborne, Regional Business Council president said in Kwame’s 30th anniversary publication.
Kwame board member Stuart Block said Thompson’s firm “is very involved in the Black community. Whether it is done through the business of volunteerism, Tony is always looking to help mentor the youth.”
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 been the beneficiary of Tony Thompson’s generous and compassionate leadership as a trustee, scholarship donor, mentor and advocate for Webster’s long-standing commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion,” said Elizabeth J. Stroble, Webster University chancellor.
Thompson calls education “the true equalizer when it comes to racial disparity.”
“For minorities to have a true chance at the American dream, we need to be educated. Life is tough, even tougher if you’re stupid,” he said.
Since 2003, the Kwame Foundation has endowed more than $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, high-achieving individuals but might not otherwise have an opportunity for higher education,” according to Thompson.
In an interview with The American, Thompson reflected on what’s needed for future success, for 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 educational system that has the same high expectation as all students across the state.
Q: What is a piece of advice would you share with aspiring young Black people?
A: Never let the fear of failure prevent 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 at a corporation and really took a liking once I got into the business world. Not only is it challenging, but I go out alone often to get away from everything and everyone to think and strategize. It has gotten me through the death of my brother [Tyrone Thompson], a nephew and mother’s death. I can have an ugly cry out loud.
Q: Closing thoughts?
A: What I would like people to know is your life was your parents’ gift to you. What you do with it is your gift to them. None of us have made it until all of us have made it, and you can’t accumulate too many enemies at one time.