Workers in Belleville, Michigan will never forget hometown businessman Bob Thompson, who sold his successful asphalt paving business for $422 million.

Bob Thompson and wife Ellen

He paid the taxes and then he took $128 million and rewarded the 550 employees at the plant.

Hourly workers who already had retirement plans received $2,000 for each year worked. Salaried employees that had no retirement plans were each rewarded with between one and two million dollars each.

When asked why he did it, Thompson said the short answer is that “It was the right thing to do.”

“People came into my office crying.”

But upon reflection he realized he did it for himself: It was an egotistical thing. “To have the esteem of your workforce – what more could you want?”

The farm boy who grew up to be an Air Force pilot started the business 40 years ago with an investment of $3,500. He says he was able to succeed because of the quality employees that made the difference between them and their competitors.

After giving them the money he asked one thing of them: “Tell your kids and grandkids about me’.”

Bob stayed on at the office to help the transition go smoothly. That same year, he and his wife, Ellen, founded the Thompson Foundation with $100 million from the sale of the Thompson-McCully Company.

The Foundation’s mission is to help low-income people rise out of poverty and become self-sufficient. In the beginning, the Foundation:

  • Established 1,000 Detroit private school scholarships for Detroit inner city kids, 500 scholarships at Schoolcraft Junior College in Livonia, 100 Michigan Tech University undergraduate engineering scholarships, and 20 Michigan State University graduate scholarships;
  • Granted funds to dozens of other programs like food banks, guidance centers, and job placement and training facilities.

Although the Foundation serves a seven-county region (Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, St. Clair, Livingston, Washtenaw, and Monroe), the vast majority of its funds are used to serve those who live in Detroit, Highland Park and Hamtramck. The Thompsons intend to distribute ALL of the Foundation’s funds in the next 10-15 years.

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