Reader Profile: Kelly Thompson

Sept. 8, 2016

The economic downturn underscored the construction industry’s “feast or famine” component for many, but when the majority of a business is comprised of family members, the effort to succeed becomes truly personal. “It’s important to show clients we are serious about what we do,” says Kelly Thompson, second-generation CEO of Thompson Construction in Fremont, NE. “Having a quality and safe job is important to us. Although it’s a low-bid situation usually wining all of these contracts, quality still matters to the cities and developers. It sure helps in the callbacks and emergency repair work. We’ve gone above and beyond in situations of a late night break or flooded situation.”

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Since its founding in 1980 by Wally Thompson, Thompson Construction has built a reputation for quality civil utility work in water, sanitary sewer, storm sewer, dam construction, substation concrete foundations, site clearing and grading, concrete drainage structures, Storm Water Pollution Prevention Plans, erosion control, and aggregate hauling throughout eastern Nebraska and western Iowa. Kelly Thompson is assisted in running the company by his brothers Scott (vice president) and Steve (secretary), as well as his sister Julie French. The company draws $3 to $5 million in annual revenues, and employs 14 people—most of whom are family. Diversification drove the company through the lean years. Half of the clients are in the government sector—25% is utility work for such entities as the Omaha Public Power district, and the other 25% is for private development.

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Family members, including the third generation, serve as “working superintendent/foreman/operators” on all job sites. Work is conducted in either clay or sandy soils, dictating equipment choices. The soil type and groundwater also makes a different in the shore box setup, with many projects requiring dewatering.

The company runs a fleet of excavators, dozers, skid steers, and side dump trucks from Caterpillar, Komatsu, Doosan, and Bobcat. The CAT excavators are set up with Trimble GPS. Due to the variety of jobs, Kelly Thompson also rents equipment based on job needs, aiming to balance the books with little debt. He doesn’t want to see idle equipment due to weather or other circumstances. “We mix and match to maintain a balance,” he notes.

Work/family balance also is important. The company rarely takes work outside of a 60-mile radius. “We’ve been fortunate to have enough work since we are close to Omaha,” he adds. “One of the perks of having a family business is it allows others to participate in their kids’ activities. That’s important to us, and it’s worked for 36 years.”

What He Does Day to Day
Kelly Thompson spends his days managing people and projects, including dealing with changes, bidding, and estimating.

What Led Him to This Line of Work
At 16, he started working for the family company, favoring the outdoors and the project variety. He earned a B.S. degree in civil engineering, combining that with his interest in construction management, as there were not many people at the time who did both. He went on earn a Professional Engineer (P.E.) designation.

What He Likes Best About His Work
Kelly Thompson enjoys working with family members and the work diversification. He likes seeing a project to its completion. “The chase for the work is fun—all of the bidding, estimating, and building the job prior to actually getting the project,” he says. “All you have to do is estimate it properly and come up with unique solutions to some of the project’s challenges. When all is said and done, it’s good to hear a client tell you you’ve done a good job.”

His Biggest Challenge
Over the years, he has learned that he can’t control the weather or the amount of available work in the service area. “And sometimes the consulting firms have been a challenge.”

With winters having become more mild, the staff is working longer throughout the year, and Thompson is bidding jobs year-round to avoid the “feast or famine” factor in construction work. “If we’ve gone through wet weather stretches and a lot of people are booked up, and somebody wants something quick, we’ve been able to do that, but it’s a fine line,” he says. “It seems risk management is all we do.”