By Jay Hodgkins
University of Virginia Darden School of Business alumnus Warren Thompson (MBA ’83) says he decided at the age of 12 he wanted to work in the restaurant business. He was sitting with his parents in a Shoney’s in Portsmouth, Virginia — a big night out for the family then — and said, “I’d like to own one of these one day.”
Today, the Thompson Hospitality founder, president and chairman runs one of the largest retail food and facilities management firms in the United States. The company operates around the globe, serving Fortune 100 companies, universities, major medical centers and urban school districts. Its retail lineup features brands such as Austin Grill, American Tap Room, Be Right Burger, Willie T’s Lobster Shack and the Pheast Food Group of themed restaurants.
A former trustee of the Darden School Foundation and member of the UVA Board of Visitors, Thompson commemorated his ties to the School in a big way this spring. He returned to Darden for his 35th reunion, became a Principal Donor — Darden’s highest recognition for giving to the School — and established the Warren M. Thompson Scholarship to help attract students who value diversity to the School.
What was your first job?
I started as an assistant manager in Roy Rogers within the Marriott Corporation as part of a fast-track program that Dick Marriott established to attract MBAs into the restaurant group.
What’s the best advice you have ever received?
Find what you’re passionate about and you’ll never work another day in your life. My father also told me I could do anything in the world that I wanted to do if I was willing to work hard.
Who do you admire most?
My father. My father was my best friend, mentor and confidant.
What motivates you?
When I started Thompson Hospitality, I had three goals: No. 1, to take care of my parents; No. 2, to make it a family business; and No. 3, to give back to the community. The third one was an open-ended goal that I could never check the box and say, “I can’t do anymore.” I’ve always said it’s important to have at least one open-ended goal, and for me it’s to give back to the community. When I say community, I would describe Darden as part of my community, but also, in particular, the African-American community. It’s a part of the community I think I continue to owe a lot.
When and where do you do your best thinking?
When I’m driving because I’m typically not on the phone. I do quite a bit of driving to various restaurants or accounts we own or operate in the Washington, D.C., market.
What’s been on your mind lately?
What is happening in our country now, in terms of becoming more divisive. The country is so divided that it makes it more difficult to make progress. I think we’re actually going backward. That weighs heavily on my mind in terms of what can we do and how long will this last.
What are you reading these days?
A Stroke of Faith by Mark Moore. He’s actually one of my closest friends. It’s about a very successful African-American business owner who suffered two strokes and had to learn how to do everything over again in life. It brought him to a very different reality of what’s important.
What technology can you not live without?
What’s your motto?
It’s very simple: Do the right thing. Do the best you can. Treat others the way you’d like to be treated. It’s the last principle of our guiding principles as a company.
What characteristics do you look for in people?
We all try to look for people who have some of the same characteristics as ourselves. For me, it’s a person who’s entrepreneurial. In almost every interview I do, I will ask the person, “Are you more comfortable in a corporate environment or an entrepreneurial environment?” Most will think I want the corporate answer because they’re interviewing with a company, but really I’m looking for a person who is willing to take a calculated risk in order to get success. I think that’s the best person to manage a piece of a business.
How do you measure success?
I measure success in terms of long-term stability and growth. In my mind, anybody can make the budget for one period or quarter or year. But how do you grow a business over three years or five years? In my mind, success is steady growth yielding the expected results during that time. It’s also, in my mind, beating the competition.
How do you unwind?
I love fishing, boating, bowling, basketball. Just about any sport, playing and watching.
What is your favorite cause?
I have a passion for diversity and inclusion. In fact, I just made a contribution to Darden to fund scholarships for students who will have a passion for diversity. I want to help attract young people to this institution who will value differences in other people. My cause has always been to get the University of Virginia to be more inclusive and diverse. I’ve spent a good 25 to 30 years working at that, whether as part of the Darden School Foundation Board of Trustees or the UVA Board of Visitors. I was just telling a group of students that I got on the board of visitors because when Mark Warner wanted to run for governor, he wanted my support, so I told him I wanted to be on the board of visitors. I told him the story of how when my father grew up 25 miles from here, he was not allowed to go to UVA so I promised my father I would one day make a difference here.
If you could live anywhere, where would it be?
I’d spend more time in Florida in the winter and more time in the mountains of Virginia during the summer.
What do you lose sleep over?
Today, it’s more about legacy and thoughts of what will happen when I can’t run the company anymore. I’m trying to position the company for proper succession because time flies by, and we’re coming up on 26 years. It’s something I have to think about more and more as there are friends that I lose and peers pass away.
Which class at Darden impacted you the most?
“Organizational Behavior” with Alec Horniman. Alec had us write a diary. Each week we’d have to write a chapter in it, and I wrote it to a son I hoped to have one day. Unfortunately, I never had the child, but I still have that document at home in my desk, and I read it periodically to see what my thoughts were at 23 versus 58. That class was very impactful, and 25, 30 years later, Horniman could still remember some of the things I submitted.
Describe a moment when you realized the true value of your Darden education.
It happens often when I call a Darden alum I may not have been in class with or known well, but I still get a warm response. It’s that Darden connection. It’s as strong between others that I didn’t go to school with as with my classmates. Also, the day I closed on the initial transaction to start Thompson Hospitality, it was reflective of a couple of things: first, how thankful I was to have the parents I had and, secondly, the education that prepared me to go through Marriott and subsequently start the company.
What was your biggest motivation for becoming a Principal Donor this year?
The connection I feel to Darden. When I attended Darden, I had no money. I was broke, right out of undergrad. Darden took care of me through scholarships and financial aid, so I felt I owed it to Darden to give back. But also, Darden School Foundation President Michael Woodfolk and Dean Beardsley, in talking with them, the challenge they have attracting minority students or students who value diversity, I felt compelled to do something to help in that effort. I couldn’t just talk about the need to do it without providing some financial support to make that happen.
Can you give us a preview of what you plan to say at your Principal Donors Society induction speech?
There are two stories: One was the story of my great great grandfather who was a slave 30 miles from here. The rumor is that he was on loan to the University to work here at certain times. He learned the blacksmith business, and at the age of 30 when he was freed, he started his own blacksmith business. That was the story my father told me and it became sort of my model. I planned to come to Darden, work at Marriott for seven years, learn the business then start my own. That along with the story my father told me of how badly he wanted to come to UVA. When I came here, a lot of my classmates were talking about legacy. I called my father and I told him I’m not sure if I fit in here. There were all these legacy kids talking about their grandfathers and great grandfathers that went here. He said, “You have a legacy as well. Your legacy is different. Your great great grandfather came there on different circumstances, but you’re all there now in the same class. Make the best of it.”
What excites you most about Thompson Hospitality’s future?
My goal is to prepare the company for the day when I step down. At that point, the company will take the next leap of growth. My goal is to get it to a $1 billion revenue company and have someone take it to $3 billion or $5 billion. I think we have a great foundation, and it’s positioned well across the various businesses. If the company goes public, there will be someone better able to do that than me. I’d love to step back and see that happen and see someone take it, or at least part of it, in that direction.
The University of Virginia Darden School of Business delivers the world’s best business education experience to prepare entrepreneurial, global and responsible leaders through its MBA, Ph.D. and Executive Education programs. Darden’s top-ranked faculty is renowned for teaching excellence and advances practical business knowledge through research. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.