Webster University alumnus Tony Thompson spent the first decade of his post-graduation career working as a construction, mechanical and project engineer, respectively, at U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Monsanto and Anheuser-Busch. As Thompson traveled around the country on behalf of these companies, he noticed a glaring absence of minority figures overseeing projects or holding leadership posts. Thompson resolved it was time to step out on his own and help change that.
“I was like, ‘If I can do it for them, I can do it for me.’ I always wanted to have my own business,” Thompson said. “I didn’t know early on in my life how or in what area — if I wanted to be a contractor, if I wanted to be an architect, whatever. The lightbulb came on in my travel: do what you know. I said, ‘I’ll just start my own business providing construction and project management since that’s exactly what I was doing.’ It only made sense.”
Thompson, 56, founded Kwame Building Group, a construction management firm headquartered in St. Louis with division offices littered throughout the U.S., in 1991. A quarter-century later, with Thompson entrenched as the CEO and chairman of the board, Kwame has been built into one of the preeminent pure construction and program management firms in the nation. Kwame manages more than $250 million of construction work a year and has made multiple appearances on the “Engineering News Record’s” annual ‘Top 100 Construction Management-for-Fee Firms’ list.
Kwame’s widespread reach, gaudy numbers, accolades pocketed or even the fact that better than 75 percent of its projects come from repeat clients isn’t what pleases Thompson the most as he reflects on 25 years of operation. Thompson has collected four college degrees — one of them a 1988 MBA in finance from Webster — and ensures his employees have a chance to earn their own.
“What I’m most proud of is I’ve been able to employ hundreds of employees, of which 80 percent are minorities and women. I’ve been able to provide tuition reimbursement, an opportunity for people who do not have college degrees,” Thompson said. “A lot of single parents and mothers who work for my company can go back to school — most of whom go to Webster — get their undergraduate degrees, and some of them even get graduate degrees through Kwame.”
Thompson has given back in multiple other ways, too. One such example is the Gentlemen’s Club, which Thompson and his late brother, Tyrone — who was a police officer for 20 years and Thompson’s right-hand man at Kwame — started more than a decade ago. Thompson visits Carnahan High School of the Future and University City High School on alternating Wednesdays to mentor young men as part of the club. The students are gifted a custom-made suit from Kwame when they graduate.
Thompson has contributed significantly to Webster as well via donations and a scholarship endowment. He is a member of the board of trustees and is on the advisory board for the Walker School of Business and Technology. Thompson received the Webster University Distinguished Alumni award in 2003.
A few years after he became the first African-American male to graduate from the University of Kansas’ architectural engineering program, Thompson elected to earn a master’s degree from Webster because of the school’s strong curriculum, professors with real-world experience and affordable cost.
“Webster had the right mix of practicality, price and knowledge of the instructors,” Thompson said. “I needed practical knowledge because I wanted to start my own business. Most small businesses fail not because they don’t have technical knowledge, but because they don’t have business knowledge. By me getting that kind of practical experience from teachers at Webster, I could take a class one day and apply what I learned the next day in my office, because I was already in my business at that point.”
Thompson said empathy is a crucial trait for entrepreneurs to possess, as he tries to put himself in the shoes of his clients and employees to better understand their viewpoints. He said his background of growing up in public housing to working as an African-American CEO in a white male-dominated industry helps him look at matters through diversified lenses. In addition to empathy, Thompson cited vision as an important leadership attribute.
“You have to be able to look beyond what has been the norm and what people have said. If I was to listen to what people said I could or could not do, I would have never started probably, as that is not a role you typically see African-Americans in,” Thompson said. “You’ve got to be willing to step out on faith. You’ve got to have a little confidence.”