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Joe C. Thompson Jr.: Conscious Capitalism in the Segregated South

Joe C. Thompson Jr.

From the fall 2016 issue of McCOMBS, the magazine for alumni and friends of the McCombs School of Business.

Joe C. Thompson Jr., BBA '22, the founder of the 7-Eleven empire, was a conscious capitalist when it wasn't cool.

Known as the father of convenience retailing, Thompson was an early champion of profit sharing for employees — a move that marked "the first real entry of the modern age towards conscious capitalism," says his granddaughter, Mary Ann Thompson-Frenk.

Thompson began his business career in Dallas in the 1920s with a chain of icehouses. Before long, he had a simple idea: selling chilled watermelon too. That venture foreshadowed the idea of another Southland Ice Company employee: Why not add in a few groceries?

Thompson ran with it, and within a decade the company owned 60 retail ice docks. Under Thompson's guidance, the world's first convenience store chain would grow to 600 locations nationwide and become a staple of American life.

Whereas old models of commerce had emphasized standard operating procedures, Thompson always prized innovation: "Anyone could suggest something different,"Thompson- Frenk says. He also understood how a racially integrated business bred out-of-the-box thinking, as people from different backgrounds swap ideas.

She says his profit sharing model had the same win-win effect: "If one store was doing significantly well, then everyone celebrated, and the store that had innovated wanted to share what worked."

Above all else, Thompson, who died in 1961, valued his employees' work ethic and integrity, says Thompson-Frenk. So even in the segregated South, her father — the boss's son — trained under people of different races and worked his way up from delivery boy.

All three of Thompson's sons followed in his footsteps: they went to business school at UT, managed the football team, joined Phi Gamma Delta, and took on leadership roles at 7-Eleven. According to Thompson-Frenk, he also instilled in his sons the values of empathy, compassion, and social justice.

Those values were certainly at play during Thompson's long tenure on the board for the State Fair of Texas, where he spoke out for desegregation. When the Ku Klux Klan showed up on his lawn, his wife would wake the boys and hustle them into a back room for "reading time," while Thompson manned the door with his rifle.

Thompson-Frenk says such an example is both inspiring and intimidating: "In our family, 'The eyes of Texas … ' is not just a shared alma mater, but a reminder that what we each do and say had better be up to the standard of the legacies written by those who've come before us."

-Selah Maya Zighelboim


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