Block by (concrete) block
It was 1909 — more than 100 years ago — when what is known today as W.W. Thompson Concrete came to life in Brainerd.
Brainerd then was a rough lumber town and there was a need for homes to be built for the lumberjacks and their families.
Founders of the concrete business, brothers Burt and Duncan Thompson along with J.C. Clausen, built the business in downtown Brainerd. According to the Thompson family today, Burt loved to recount his family history. His father, George, who was born in Nova Scotia in the mid 1800s heard of a big boom happening in Brainerd and moved his family to the Minnesota city. George took up mason work and worked in the brickyard during the summer and he logged in the winter.
The Thompson brothers bought out Clausen’s business share in 1931 and called the business Thompson Brothers Concrete Works. In the 1940s, Burt’s son William was called to serve in World War II and when he was discharged he bought out Duncan’s share when he wanted to retire. Then when Burt died in 1954, his son William bought out his mother’s share of the business and moved it five years later to its present location on the corner of Business Highway 371 and Industrial Park Road. It was at this time William changed the name to W.W. Thompson Concrete. The “W.W.” is after his name William Walter.
William’s son, Todd Thompson, the current owner of the concrete business, started working for the family business at age 14 in 1969. Todd began working full-time after high school and then in 1980, he bought out his father’s share who was retiring.
Today Todd runs the business, with his son, Brett, who is the fourth generation to work at the family business, at his side. Brett began working for the family business in the summer of 1997, when he was 15. Brett graduated from high school, then went off to North Dakota State University, where he graduated and then decided to come back and work full-time at Thompson in 2001.
“Concrete is in our blood,” said Todd. “The plant used to be downtown Brainerd on Front Street by the Eagles Club, but they had to relocate the business because more space was needed. We are the only concrete block business in Brainerd.”
Todd said that when he was a child there were three block plants in Brainerd and in the immediate area. Todd believes the other plants closed because of the economic recessions and because they didn’t stay up-to-date with the modern equipment trends.
“One of the main reasons why we are still here today is because he have stayed current in the industry,” Todd said. “We have more than 175 shapes and sizes of blocks and we make retaining blocks and pavers in any color people want.”
W.W. Thompson Concrete Products creates many types of masonry products, including concrete, block, stone, paving stone, earthworks, retaining walls and landscape materials.
Todd said the block industry really changed in 1986 with the introduction of Keystone products that are used for retaining walls and other landscaping projects.
“Concrete blocks is the main base of our business, but keeping up with the industry is a must,” said Todd. “Keystone is part of our business and it is profitable. But today not so much because of competition. It’s a dog eats dog world out there and a lot of the big retail stores sell similar products. We are a diversified company and we maintain state-of-the art equipment that manufactures quality products.”
Todd said the concrete industry has changed over the decades, not only in products, but also in equipment. Todd said the way the concrete blocks were made over the years changed from his grandfather and father making the blocks by hand to building them with machines. Equipment also improved over the decades and the block-making machines have became much more efficient, as well as the cement trucks that deliver the concrete became more efficient, with booms being added to the trucks.
This past winter, the company installed a new concrete block-making machine that makes several products for the Thompsons. Todd said that the machine has the capability of making three million 8-inch blocks a year or it can produce three blocks every 10 seconds.
Todd said from 1975-84, the company started a ready mix business to make it easier for the contractors. Contractors would be able to buy the supplies and have the work delivered all with one company.
“Eventually more ready mix businesses came into a 30-mile radius of Brainerd where there were 12-13 plants,” said Todd. “Because of the competition, we decided to get out of the business.”
Todd said in 2000, they began selling construction supplies for mason contractors.
“This has been a good thing,” said Todd. “We’ve also added insulated concrete forms that we sell.
Like any business, there have been many financial ups and downs, but the concrete block business has been able to stay afloat. Todd said when interest rates were up, business was down. In the 70s, business went fairly well and then in the 80s during a recession, everything fell again, Todd said. Then in the late 80s to 2005, W.W. Thompson saw “fantastic growth.”
“We had a good, long run with the good times, but 2005 was our last good year,” said Todd. “It’s declined since then. We have not seen an increase in sales since. Our sales are beginning to look positive over a year ago, so we are seeing improvements.
“Our products are all related to the home construction industry so when the market is good it is good for us and when it’s not we see a decrease.”
Todd said through the bad times, the business was able to stay afloat because of its versatility of its products, like the retaining wall materials and “Business needs to run just like a family, you spend within your means,” said Todd.
Todd said during the slow years, the company didn’t hire back any seasonal employees and some employees retired. The company had 35 employees in 2005 and today there are 21. In the 80s, the business employed 12-14.
There have been several additions to the plant over the years, with its recent, largest addition in 2001, which houses the company’s new concrete machine.
Todd said he is looking forward to another 100 years for the business to stay in the family.
“It’s nice to keep the business in the family,” said Todd. “I was offered it from my dad and now I can pass it on to my son.”
Brett said when he went off to college he did not have his mind made up if he wanted to get into the family business. However, he graduated and decided it was what he wanted.
“I came back to work here every summer or on weekends and I’ve enjoyed the business,” said Brett. “I enjoy working with the people and being in the lakes area.”
Todd said, “Our employees are really good, hard working people ... They are the ones who have helped us make this business successful.”