Passion drives Tony Thompson. Whether he’s leading a board meeting, exercising at the gym at 6 a.m., mentoring students, or creating music with new technology, Thompson adds his intense enthusiasm and emotion to each undertaking.
Thompson holds four college degrees, including a BS degrees in both environmental design and architectural engineering, an MS in civil engineering-construction management and an MBA in finance. He’s the chairman of the board of Kwame Building Group, Inc., a minority-owned construction management firm he founded in 1991. One of the nation’s preeminent providers of pure construction management services, Thompson calls Kwame a big company in a small company’s body. In 2012, he sold 49 percent of Kwame to its employees through an Employee Stock Ownership Plan. The company currently is the project manager for the $70-million Airport Experience Program, the largest renovation in the history of the airport.
Thompson credits his parents, Betty and Jack Thompson, for his drive and determination. One of four children, he reminisces about going with his mother, an African American political pioneer, to pass out cheese and coats to needy families at Pruitt-Igoe, a large urban housing project in the city of St. Louis. “Mom has always given back,” he says. “She taught me that me and my siblings that nothing was impossible; and that despite the fact that we came from humble beginnings and lived in a St. Louis housing project, we could do anything. I feel blessed that today I am able give back, too. Mom set the perfect example for her children.” His favorite quotation is by Walt Whitman: Nothing greater than the mother of men.
Thompson says his dad also taught him good values. “Believing in hard work, he never let us sleep late on weekends,” he recalls. “As a youngster, I’d help him pull weeds around the house. Later, he insisted I work during summer vacations and save most of the money. His wisdom came in handy when I cashed in my CDs to help pay for the final year of my architectural engineering program at Washington University.”
While young Tony was attending University City High School and playing in the school band, Jack Thompson, a security guard at General Motors GMAC, was in a car accident requiring six months of hospitalization. “It was a difficult time. We didn’t think Dad would live; and for a period of time, we had no money at all,” Thompson admits. “But, Dad made sure we had the Christmas we wanted. He was so ill and yet he bought me an organ for Christmas. It was sitting by his hospital bed when we went to visit on Christmas morning. It was never about him. It was about us.” He calls his dad “the smartest man I ever knew.”
Thompson and his wife, Kim, have two grown children: Kristie and Michael. “We never missed our kids’ sports games or parent-teacher conferences. This was important to us,” he stresses. “Each week, I read to the students in my daughter’s school class. I felt it was important for white kids to see a black man reading to them. I continue to do all I can to help improve the perception and image of black men.”
Thompson and his late brother, Tyrone, formed The Gentlemen’s Club, a young men’s mentoring group at Carnahan High School of the Future in the St. Louis School District. “Kwame sponsors the program and I spend one afternoon each week inspiring these students to be gentlemen and leaders,” Thompson says. “I am proud that 100 percent of the seniors involved in the Gentlemen’s Club now attend college on scholarships, and equally excited that 90 percent of Carnahan’s college seniors graduate. Tyrone and I shared the belief that education could end racism.” When they graduate, The Kwame Foundation gifts each young man with a custom-made suit.
Thompson also established The Tyrone Thompson Institute for Nonviolence, a peer-mentoring program for suspended students, in his brother’s memory. Through the program, St. Louis Community College students tutor and mentor suspended St. Louis public school students from kindergarten through eighth grade.
Thompson’s community involvement also has included Barnes-Jewish Hospital, Teach for America, Regional Business Council, Boy Scouts of America, St. Louis Community College Foundation, School of Business and Technology at Webster University, St. Louis Regional Crime Commission and the St. Louis Black Leadership Roundtable.
His latest passion is promoting the ‘Live Your Dream’ concert on March 20 at The Sheldon. The event will feature four graduating seniors who attend the Central Visual and Performing Arts School in St. Louis. Singer and composer Brianna Elise Brown and her trio comprised of Antonio Foster, James Thomas Jr. and Karrington Toney all plan to major in music in college. “Brianna loves music and plans to one day teach music to others. This girl’s got talent,” Thompson says proudly.
Thompson himself began playing piano at age 12, but turned down a music scholarship to major in architecture and engineering. He’ll accompany Brown on the piano when she sings Somewhere in My Lifetime. “I love music,” says the 53-year-old entrepreneur. “Music is my first love—it energizes me.” But this time, he says, “It’s not about me. My time has come and gone. It’s about them.”