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Thompson Pump Adapts Products With Changing Times

Mon January 05, 2015 - Southeast Edition
Brenda Ruggiero

George A. Thompson and his sons, Bill and George Jr., founded Thompson Pump in 1970.

“I was just graduating from college — I had just graduated in December of ’69, and my brother was just graduating from high school,” Bill Thompson said. “My dad had been working at the Cape [Canaveral] the Apollo program. He was working for ITT Federal Electric, and his job was as an engineer on the Vanguard, which was a missile tracking ship. At that time we had just landed the men on the moon, so the Apollo program was winding down, and my dad saw that now we’re going to have to do something else, and he decided that he would like to start his own company.”

Thompson said that his father had a background in pumps from being in the Navy during WWII and going through technical schools provided by the U.S. military. When he got out of the Navy in 1945, he worked for a company in New York City (now a competitor), where he learned even more about pumps and how to apply them for dewatering — primarily wellpoint dewatering, but for other applications as well. The first product the company introduced was not a pump, but a type of underdrain pipe that Thompson’s father invented for dewatering.

“Not that my father had invented the idea of the underdrain pipe,” Thompson said. “There were all sorts of French drains and methods of pre-drainage of the ground. “He had this concept for the underdrain pipe shortly after we started the company. He worked with a company out of New Orleans to develop an economic manufacturing processing using plastic to make underdrain pipe. My dad patented this process shortly after.”

At this point, the company had a method of getting water from the ground to the pump, but needed to have the pumps, as well.

“We started buying engines, buying the pump ends, building the frames, putting them together and then renting the completed product,” Thompson said. “Our business was geared almost 100 percent towards shallow well dewatering — underdrain dewatering for construction — so we used a lot of Fairbanks Morse pump ends, Leeman vacuum pumps and Detroit Diesel engines. At that point in time we had no real capital, but my dad was able to convince the vendors to give us a little leeway on our payments. They extended credit to us, and we never defaulted on a single bill. In the first year, we probably built five pumps and sent five wellpoint systems or underdrain systems out, and we were actually in many respects doing contract dewatering, so we were building our pumps using components manufactured by others, and using the underdrain pipe, and then about a year later we started adding wellpoints to our repertoire.”

Thompson said that the next big step in the evolution of the company came about when his father decided that the components that were available at that time, such as centrifugal pump ends and vacuum pumps, were not as efficient as they should be for their purposes.

“They were good products, but when you tried to use them for dewatering, especially when you had to handle a lot of air and water, my father thought there was a better way of doing it. His idea was to take the concept of a Roots blower and the industrial rotary pump and adapt it to pumping ground water. Those types of pumps are good for pumping air, and they’re good for pumping viscous fluids like molasses and oils, but they had not been employed for pumping ground water with a certain amount of sand and grit and chemicals like sulfur and iron in them. My dad took that idea and then changed the materials of construction and the clearances. Then he worked with a company to make the patterns and the molds, and we started building our own rotary pump ends. It took us a couple of years to completely debug that product, but our customers could see from the very beginning that the rotary pump was highly efficient, required less horsepower, burned less fuel and handled more air and more water per gallon than any other product that was out there.”

Thompson Pump made many other adaptations over the years. One of the more significant ones is the Enviroprime System.

“In our business, you need to be very environmentally conscious. We were noticing that some of the products out there were slobbering a lot of oil,” Thompson said “They were discharging a lot of the pumpage, not through the discharge of the pump, but through the priming system. As a company, and with my dad’s guidance, we developed what we call the Enviroprime System, which is a component for a priming system that prevents the pumpage from going onto the ground.”

More recently, Thompson has gone to oil-less vacuum pumps, meaning that there’s no oil in the portions of the pump that handle the pumpage.

“In addition to our OVT oil-less vacuum pumps, sound attenuation is a major requirement for our customers,” Thompson said. “We were one of the first companies in the United States — probably not the first, but one of the first — to adapt sound enclosures for pumps. They had been widely used on generators and compressors for years. Variable speed pumps are a little bit different than generators, there needs to be openings for the intake and output. We developed a canopy to work with our pumps and now our product is one of the quietest available on the market.”

When Thompson Pump first started business, their work was within 200 miles of Port Orange. In the early 70s, the Florida market went into decline, so the company began moving into the North and South Carolina territories. At that time, there was a lot of development happening in the Hilton Head Island area, so Thompson Pump opened a branch in Goldsboro, N.C. A few years later, they opened one in Jackson, Miss., and then Chesapeake, Va.

“Within a relatively short period of time, in 1980 about 10 years from when we started, we had three branches in operation in the southeast, and that was more or less our stomping grounds.

“Since then, we have expanded to 21 branch locations as far north as Providence, R.I., and as far west as Kansas City. We also have a network of distributors and dealers that handle the rest of the United States for us. In addition, we are represented in every state, and we have representation in Canada, Mexico and around the world. As time has gone on, we went from being a relatively local company to being an international company, and of course the percentage of revenue that’s attributed to each of these areas varies.”

Thompson said several key people have been instrumental to the company’s development over the years. One is Frank Willis, who has since passed on.

“You know, in a small company, you need people to wear a lot of hats, and I think that’s what we saw,” Thompson said. “My dad, of course managed a lot of the product development, all of the sales and most of the engineering including applications engineering — and then Frank took over as our general superintendent, and he was responsible for actually implementing the manufacturing in the business, so I would say that Frank Willis was one of the key contributors.”

Another is George Jr., who Thompson said was a very fast learner and willing to do whatever needed to be done.

“We used to say that once it goes out the door, George Jr. was responsible for it — so as a young man, he was traveling in the southeast United States making sure that our equipment was operating properly,” Thompson said.

Another person retiring this year is Bob Castello. He joined Thompson in 1974 and worked in many capacities. Until about 12 years ago, he was the national service manager, and then he took over as production manager.

“So now the young guy who joined us right out of college ended up being in charge of all of our production,” Thompson said.

Shawn Mackey joined the company while she was in high school as a part time office employee, and now serves as vice president of finance, having graduated from University of Central Florida. She has been with the company for nearly 38 years.

Bill Crooms serves as national service manager, and Dale Conway is vice president of engineering. Crooms joined Thompson from the vocational program at Daytona Beach Community College as a shop mechanic. He then worked as a field mechanic, moved up to production manager and then became the national service manager. He has been with the company for 37 years. Dale Conway joined as a part time employee while he was in high school and then graduated from the University of Florida in mechanical engineering. He worked in 10 different positions in the company before becoming vice president of engineering. He’s been responsible for all of our product development for the past 12 years.

When speaking of the key business philosophy, Thompson Pump values honesty and integrity.

“We built the business based on being honest with our customers and giving them support and value,” Thompson said. “We’re not just out selling a product or renting a product. Our goal is to provide complete satisfaction for our customers by having high ethics, honesty, and integrity. We tell them what we can do, and we do it; and if we can’t do it, then we recommend somebody else who can.”

Another of the company’s founding philosophies is that a good vendor is just as important as a good customer.

“We try to work very closely with our support vendors to make sure that everything we’re doing is a win-win situation,” Thompson said. “A win for us, a win for our vendor and a win for our customers. And those values also translate into the way we deal with our employees. We promote the idea that we’re not looking for people who are just looking for a job. We want people who are looking for a career, and consequently we have many, many people who have been with our company for more than 25 years, which I think in today’s day and time is a little unique.”

Another important aspect of the company philosophy is that employees, who are considered team members, are taught to never be satisfied, because there may be a better, more efficient, or less costly way of accomplishing a task. Employees are taught to focus on continuous improvement and always try to get better every day.

According to Thompson, the economy has had a significant impact on the company.

“The recession forced us to reinvent our company,” Thompson said. “I know it’s a cliché that you hear a lot, but it actually did. What we saw was that while we were focused primarily on construction and dewatering, when construction was in the down cycle, we had to look elsewhere for business. We went out of the United States looking for business, and we also diversified our markets — we focused more on mines, pits and quarries, and we focused more on the oil and gas industry. We’re deeply involved in fracking, which was not even on our radar screen seven or eight years ago. We’ve been the recipient of the Green Award by the VMA (Value Added Manufacturing Alliance), and what we see is that our products are becoming more environmentally conscious. We address environmental issues, not only with our products, but also with the applications. We’re deeply involved with remediation type projects and clean up projects. I see us continuing our growth and expansion, continuing our market and product diversification.”

According to Thompson, one of the biggest changes he’s seen being in business for 44 years is that when he first started right out of college, his customers were knowledgeable about how to operate equipment.

“They would rent equipment and buy equipment, and they weren’t looking for as much support and guidance and training and instruction as they are now,” Thompson said “I think a lot of the knowledge has been lost — maybe not lost, but it’s centered in maybe a smaller number of people. I think our customers are looking for more support from our distributors, from our branches and from our factory. An example of that is some of the new engines that are coming out. If you’re not a computer person, you can’t diagnose a problem on these engines, but the old mechanics could look at the exhaust and smoke and they could tell you what was wrong with it. Well, you can’t do that anymore.

“Secondly, I think there is an atmosphere of rising expectations. I’ve seen it for at least the last 20 years, where customers are expecting more from their suppliers. Our manufacturing operation expects more from our vendors, and our employees are expecting more from our company. So they have higher expectations of us and we have higher expectations of ourselves. So, I’m seeing that as a positive change.”

A third, major change noted by Thompson is the availability of equipment. When Thompson Pump first started, there were only two or three other competitors within the state of Florida, and they were a fairly long distance away. Customers would anticipate their needs in advance of when they would need the product.

“They were planning and we could plan,” Thompson said. “It’s not that way today. Today, there are many places where you can get pumps, and most of them are within an hour or so of wherever you are in the United States. The customers do not plan ahead as they used to. They call and expect delivery this afternoon or tomorrow morning. Even if it’s a specialized pump for a specialized project, they’re expecting you to be able to deliver it, and if you can’t, then someone else can. And also, along with that comes the expectation of very low pricing, but at the same time, high quality, high performance, immediate delivery, availability, all those things.”

He said that he sees the company adding additional branches and distributors in the future. However, Thompson’s philosophy is different than some of the other companies.

“As opposed to some of our competitors, we don’t establish a distributor and then as soon as they’ve developed a territory, go and open up a branch,” Thompson said. “We will not do that and that’s back to the ethical standards that we adhere to. At the same time, we will not sell equipment into an area where we don’t have some type of support mechanism. If there’s an area where we see that there’s a demand for our products, we will either establish a distributor or open up a branch, and I see us doing that not only domestically, but internationally as well.”

As for the management of the company, the future appears to be in place as well.

“We’re very fortunate in that we do have a very strong succession plan, and we have a strong group of staff that’s ready to take over this company and lead it into the next phase of our evolution,” Thompson said. “I’m very fortunate to have two sons who are very active in the business. Chris Thompson is our vice president of branchoperations, and he’s been with the company 15 years. He is very knowledgeable, and has been through the matriculation in our company with just about every department, and I think he and Dale Conway, our VP of engineering, are ready to provide the leadership that’s necessary.

“I also have another son, Bobby Thompson who’s a regional manager for our company, and he’s been with the company now for almost 11 years. He has a very high aptitude for leadership in our company. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Majid Tavakoli and John Farrell. Majid is our vice president of applied products. He’s responsible for all of our projects that are ongoing, and John is our vice president of sales. So we have a very strong group of younger folks who are already leading the company, and they’re just going to take an even greater role as we go forward.”

“As a major manufacturer of leading edge pump solutions servicing a broad range of applications throughout the world, I am proud of our people and the company which Thompson Pump has become.” CEG

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