Businessman John Thompson serves as chairman and CEO of four Indianapolis companies, including First Electric Supply Co. and Thompson Distribution Co. But over the years, he has built an equally impressive resume for volunteer service and philanthropy. A polymath whose interests range from art collecting to entrepreneurship, he has served on the boards of a lengthy list of organizations, including Indy Chamber, the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership, the Indiana Economic Development Corp., the Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee, the Eskenazi Health Foundation and Riley Children’s Hospital Foundation.
“Well, for me, it’s all about the old-fashioned health, education and welfare,” Thompson said. “There’s significant income and wealth inequality in this country, and it’s growing at a rapid, rapid rate. Unfortunately, African Americans are on the wrong end of that growing divide.”
Thompson isn’t talking about abstracts. He grew up in a Baltimore housing project, one of eight children. His family got help from agencies ranging from the Salvation Army to the local church. His chemical engineering degree from Cornell University was paid for by a chemical company, and his Columbia University MBA was paid for with a fellowship.
Thompson started his career as an independent consultant for Fortune 500 companies in New York City and London. He came to Indianapolis in 1983 after hearing about Bill Mays’ Mays Chemical Co., and successfully cold-called him for a job. He stayed from 1984 until 2001, when he decided to acquire his own businesses. At the same time, he started giving back by working with more and more charitable agencies.
He was instrumental in the effort to raise funds for the new Eskenazi Health campus, helping to draw some $64 million in funding. In a philanthropic career filled with successes, he considers that one of his greatest.
“Even today, when I drive by Eskenazi Hospital, I’m still amazed,” Thompson said. “The fact that we were able to figure out how to get a hospital that served those who don’t have insurance coverage, don’t have money—I’m extremely proud to see them served in a facility like that.”
In 2009, he was brought in as chairman of Black Expo, where he substantially increased the amount of scholarship money the organization handed out to students. One of the reasons he’s still involved with the organization is because it mirrors his own focus on health, education and welfare.
Art has always been important to Thompson. Besides lending his managerial skills and money to numerous cultural venues, including serving as president of the board of governors for the Indianapolis Museum of Art, he also lends pieces from his extensive African American art collection, which is recognized as one of the leading such collections in the nation.
“I want young people, particularly my kids, but also all young African American kids, to know that we have great artists, too,” Thompson said. “I want them to understand that African art, which is sometimes called primitive, is really not.”