July 14, 2017 10:54:56 AM
As you enter the town of Hamilton and turn onto Old Highway 45, the first thing you notice is the sprawling Tronox facility. A half -mile north of the chemical company is Thompson's Welding Services, easily the second-most impressive complex along highway. About half-way in between is the town's community center.
On Thursday, workers from Thompson's filed into the back door of the community center, greeted by the company's founder, Bill Thompson, and his wife, Evelyn, who were also celebrating their 55th wedding anniversary, although that was not the main purpose of the gathering.
It is often say you can distinguish a "working man" from a "white-collar worker" by when he takes his shower. Workers shower after they come home, white-collar workers before they leave home.
The majority of those who arrived were immediately recognized as the former, their work clothes grimy and sweat-stained.
They came not to celebrate a wedding anniversary, but another milestone: Thompson's Welding Services celebrated its 45th anniversary by treating its employees to a steak lunch with all the trimmings.
The men exchanged greetings with the Thompson's, studied photos on the wall that told the story of the company founded by Bill and one other welder in 1972. They then sat down to eat.
They ate quickly and did not linger. Raising when the meal was over and heading back to job.
When a visitor noted this, Bill Thompson smiled with satisfaction.
"We don't fool around," he said. "Our people come to work, work hard, get the work done and go home. It's been that way from the start."
Thompson grew up in Hamilton -- his father moved here in 1929 and started farming. As a young man, Thompson went to welding school, joined the local pipe-fitters union and spent nine years traveling around the South working.
Those years on the road made him realize he wanted to come home. He took a job with Glenn Machine Works, then struck out on his own a year later when he was approached by a company in Starkville that asked for Thompson's advice on a major job.
Thompson ran it by his bosses, who told him they'd take a pass on the job, but he was welcome to pursue it on his own.
That's how the company started.
"Me and my partner worked seven 12s (seven 12-hour shifts) a week for a whole year to finish the job."
On May 5, 1972, Thompson announced in the local newspaper ad the opening of his company.
Thompson's was pretty much a mom-and-pop operation. Folks brought it their farm equipment for a quick fix or there might be a job or two to be had here and there. Thompson did some plumbing, too.
While Thompson's remains a family business, it hardly resembles the small-scale, we'll-do-whatever operation. If the image you hold of a welding shop is a converted gas station and a few welding torches in the back and old folks playing dominoes in the front, you've not visited Thompson's current facility, a sprawling complex built on seven acres. The original shop is now the office and is tiny compared to the adjacent main production facility.
With 80 employees, Thompson's is second oldest private company in town and its second largest employer. Only Tronox, one of Thompson's biggest and oldest clients, has been around longer and employs more than the company Bill founded in 1972. Today, his sons, Ken and Barry run the company. Three of Bill's grandchildren work there, too.
It's a high-tech operation and welding is only one of the services the company provides. Today, they are major fabricators, specializing in making high-pressure tanks, structural work and pipe work.
"We've got five major clients that are our base," said Ken Thompson, who with his brother, Barry, has been running the company since Bill's retirement in 2005. "Barry and I have been working here since we were teenagers. Back then, it was eight or nine guys and we worked mainly the oil fields. It's nothing like that today. We're doing precision fabricating work, pretty complicated stuff. The days of fixing a weld on somebody's tractor, we don't really do that sort of thing any more. That's not what we do."
It's hard to overestimate the value of a company like Thompson's in a small town. The county's big industries, their headquarters in far-away cities, may come and go based strictly on business decisions.
"As long we're here, we're here, if you know what I mean," Ken says.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is email@example.com.
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