““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
Richard Thompson is an enthusiastic self-proclaimed entrepreneur. "I've never had a job my whole life that I didn't create," he told me as we talked in his finely refurbished Hawker 700A on the Jet Aviation ramp at New Jersey's Teterboro Airport.
Thompson left El Paso [Texas] Community College after two years in the early 1970s seeking adventure. "I went to Belize for seven years when it was still British Honduras," he said. "I owned 100 acres on Caye Caulker."
He has also been in the oil and gas business in North Dakota, founded the American Italian Pasta Company ("the largest pasta company in North America") and bought and sold Meow Mix, earning himself a tidy sum. He's now the CEO of GO7Brands (pronounced "gee-oh-seven"), a consulting and financing firm that assists packaged-goods-focused companies; and the founder and largest shareholder of Zootoo.com, a Web site that he hopes will become as indispensable for pet lovers as Google is for Web searches.
As Thompson demonstrates, entrepreneurs tend to approach management a bit differently than the classic corporate CEO. He's also an unabashed proponent of business aviation. Here's his story.
How did you get involved in aviation?
I worked at the local airport while I was in high school. The instructor said, "If you're going to fly airplanes, you're going to learn why they fly. You'll be a better pilot if you know how everything works on a plane." That summer we rebuilt a J-3 Cub and made one Aero Commander 500 out of two wrecked ones. Then he started to teach me how to fly. I got my pilot's license in June 1967.
You said you've had several piston airplanes, but you stopped flying. What happened?
When I was 32 I met Kristen, my future wife, in a Republic Airlines boarding line at Minneapolis Airport. I got her upgraded to sit in first class next to me. Three months later we were married. On one of our first dates, I flew her in my [Cessna] P210 from Denver to Santa Fe to meet my mom. But within a year after we got married, Kristen said, "You're hanging out at the hangar too much. When you get something with a stand-up bathroom, I'll fly with you again." She helped me get rid of the 210. Six years ago, I bought this airplane.
Why did you buy a Hawker 700, a model that has been out of production since 1984?
Because there's a big price difference between it and the Hawker 800. So I thought, being a pilot and understanding how planes work, we could take it apart and rebuild it, which we did. The capital that I didn't spend on an 800 I have for my business, and I have an airplane that is just as good. I can still get from point A to B in comfort.
Doesn't it bother you to fly in a 27-year-old airplane?
No. It's very reliable. Will I someday trade up to an 800? Probably. I'm waiting for the market to dictate when I do that. We've put bids out on a few.
How much do you fly in a year?
About 400 hours, 80 percent business. We also charter the airplane occasionally, so for me it's still kind of business.
Have you ever considered jet cards or fractional shares?
I've looked at all that stuff. Fractionals are perfect for a corporation that doesn't want to own an airplane, or people who don't know anything about airplanes. But fractionals are not cheap for what you get. I get the best value for what I'm doing, plus I get the write-offs I'm looking for.
Do you still fly?
I keep up my medical. I'd like to get a Hawker type rating but it would take me two weeks. I don't have the time, but I'm trying to find the time.
Any advice for business jet passengers?
I have one rule for my pilots: We don't have to be anywhere at any given time. I don't want to force us into any weather or conditions that are not good to be in.
Do you have your own flight department?
No. The airplane is managed by Maine Aviation and all the flights are Part 135, even the ones I do. I changed this a couple of years ago when the FAA started tightening up. Now I pay the normal charter rate and what I'm doing is funding part of the maintenance on the plane myself. I have a different split with Maine Aviation than when they charter it to someone else.
I saw online that your 700 is for sale. Is that correct?
Everything I own is for sale. That's what a good entrepreneur does. You buy low and sell high. I'm not [planning to sell the 700] until I find something to replace it. But if someone comes in with a high enough price-who knows?
Speaking of entrepreneurs, how did you become one?
I was born an entrepreneur. I never worked for anybody. I didn't get a college degree, so I can't be a lawyer or a doctor. I had to be an entrepreneur.
What is the origin of GO7Brands?
We owned Meow Mix, the cat food company. We sold it to Del Monte in 2006. Del Monte didn't want our office space or employees, so I kept most of the team, about 36 people, and the space, about 20,000 square feet. We made a few dollars.
Then we formed GO7, which stands for "gang of seven," because there were seven senior management people at Meow Mix. They're a great consumer-products team. A lot of these guys are working on a company called Freshpet, a new brand of dog food, which is in about 2,500 stores.
Where did the idea for Zootoo come from?
I just dream this [stuff] up. "Zoo" means all animals and "too" means you, too, can be helpful. We launched in October 2007 and it's now the leading online community for pet lovers.
Why did you decide to do a Web site for pet lovers?
There are 200 million pet owners and lovers in this country. About 75 million households have pets. It's a $50 billion annual market. My goal is to own the mindset of people who want to find and share information about pets and meet other pet lovers.
Is Zootoo internally funded?
Yes, by me and my partners. We've put in more than $8 million as startup capital.
Do you plan to have advertising on the site?
Yes, because we have a rich vertical [market] with pet lovers. It's not like YouTube or Facebook, where you don't know what you've got. So companies selling cat litter, pet food manufacturers, pet suppliers, vets, groomers and so on are the people who you'd want advertising.
How did the idea to do Animal Shelter Makeovers evolve?
At Meow Mix, we gave a lot of cat food to animal shelters. All shelters are underfunded and understaffed. They need help for everything. To get Zootoo started, we decided to do extreme makeovers for pet shelters, like ABC does for houses. Everyone thought I was crazy.
Your typical pet shelter is on a highway somewhere, away from other parts of the community. We found that 70 percent of the people in most communities don't know where their local shelter is. So they go to a pet store instead of adopting a pet. We do the Shelter Makeover so that the community has to get involved with the shelter to help it win a million-dollar makeover. Therefore, the community knows where to go to adopt a pet, which brings the shelter and the community together.
How did you do that?
When you open the [Zootoo] site the first time, it asks for your ZIP code, shows you the shelters near you and asks you to select one-or you can enter the name of any shelter you'd like. Every time you do most anything on Zootoo, that shelter gets points. The only way a shelter can win is to engage the media in a community-get the local paper and TV or radio stations to come do a story.
We got more than 600,000 pet reviews and one million pet photos on Zootoo just doing that. Nobody knew what Zootoo was six months before. The top 20 point-earning shelters received prize money [though only one got the million-dollar makeover].
With my crew of eight, we went to 20 cities in two weeks in our Hawker. We did [at least] two cities every day. Thousands of people were at the shelters with signs and balloons and lots of pets were adopted.
Do you spend all your time on Zootoo?
Mostly, but I have other businesses. We have an investment in a pasta business in North Dakota. I use the airplane to fly there. We're doing some projects in New York. We have homes in Southampton [N.Y.]; Sun Valley, Idaho; and Los Cabos, Mexico; and we use the plane to fly there.
What is your management style?
Totally hands on.
How do you do that in a big company like Meow Mix?
You get involved. You can talk to all the people, walk around a lot and look a lot. You can stay off the golf course and pay attention to your businesses. I'm sitting in meetings, listening to people and giving feedback. People know I'm involved.
What is the worst mistake a CEO can make?
Not listening to your people. So many CEOs don't listen and think they know the answer and tell people what to do when they don't really know the problem.
How do you get past your core team?
You just go talk to people, have lunch with them. It scares everyone else. [They wonder], "Why are you having lunch with them?" You need to know what everyone is thinking about on a project. No one knows better than the person who is touching that problem or opportunity.
How does the U.S. economy look to you?
It looks crappy. Everybody is running for the hills. On the other hand, whenever everybody is running one way, there's a lot of opportunity where they ran from. So you have to be in a position where you can take advantage of the opportunity.
CEO Files Résumé: Richard Thompson
POSITION: Founder of Zootoo.com and CEO of GO7Brands.
PREVIOUS POSITIONS: CEO and president of The Meow Mix Company, which he bought with JW Childs Associates from Nestle/Purina for $167 million in 2002.
Sold Meow Mix to the Cypress Group in 2003 for $435 million, remaining as CEO after reinvesting in Cypress. With Cypress in March 2006, he sold Meow Mix to Del Monte Foods for $720 million. Founded American Italian Pasta Company in 1987; it went public in 1997.
EDUCATION: El Paso Community College.
PERSONAL: Age 57. Born in Coldwater, Kan. Married 25 years; three children, 23,
22 and 19. Homes in Southampton, N.Y.; Sun Valley, Idaho; and Los Cabos, Mexico. Has commercial pilot certificate with single- and multi-engine and instrument ratings. Owns a 1981 Hawker 700. Previously owned a Cessna P210. Hobbies include flying, biking, skiing, squash and golf.