Mary Kennedy Thompson: Born To Lead
“I came into franchising as a franchisee first, and that’s one of the things I love about franchising, I’ve sat on both sides of the fence. I always tell people the minute I forget what it felt like to be a franchisee is the day I’ll leave franchising because I think it’s really important to be able to see on both sides.”
Born in Bedford, Massachusetts, Mary Kennedy Thompson grew up a citizen of the world. Her father, a member of the United States Army, was stationed all around the globe and brought with him his wife and children. Thompson got to experience at a young age living in places like India and Germany, as well as throughout many American States.
Fortunate to visit places such as the Taj Mahal and the Grand Canyon, Thompson feels blessed having a view of the world that doesn’t consist of only a small county or city, but rather is a collective insight based off her constant moving. “It was nice, when we moved around my friends all came with me,” Thompson says, referring to her eight younger siblings.
Graduating high school in El Paso, TX, Thompson received a military ROTC scholarship that helped pay her way through university. While in school Thompson held jobs working in dry cleaners, waiting tables and tending bar. “I was the epitome of a poor starving student,” she laughs. “But it was worth it. I knew if I worked hard and did the best I could do I’d end up where I wanted to be.”
Graduating in 1985 with an English degree, Thompson was then commissioned as second lieutenant in the Marine Corps. “I picked the Marines because I wanted to be a part of the best of the best. I’d rather be the worst person on best team, than the best person on the worst team,” she explains. Aware of the challenges she might face as seen in her father’s career, Thompson was eager to take this path.
“My Dad was one of my first mentors and taught me a lot about leadership,” Thompson says, “Leadership starts with listening to your gut because it brings together your head with your heart. It’s about having enough heart to care, and enough mind to think through making smart decisions.”
Entering into the military at a time when they were just starting to let women do some of the things we now take for granted, Thompson attended Jump School, got her wings, and soon after was filling command positions. She was one of the first women assigned to the Beach and Port Company where she was a platoon commander assigned to lead 58 marines, all of which were men. “I never thought about gender as something that did anything but gave me a different perspective,” she says.
From rappelling out of helicopters and managing an airfield in Korea, to working in recruitment for the Marine Corps, Thompson says, “It wasn’t about going down the easy road, it was about being the best person you can be and that’s about doing the right thing. I’ve found that doing the right thing is rarely about doing the easiest things. I didn’t take the comfortable path, I always believed a comfortable path is the most dangerous path you take.”
The Civilian Life
After Thompson married her college sweetheart, gave birth to their daughter, and served eight years in the Marine Corps, she transitioned back into the civilian world. Earning a job as a sales representative for Baxter Scientific Products, Thompson learned a lot about selling ideas, meeting needs, and delivering persuasive presentations.
“I wish more people would wrap their arms around what it means to properly sell,” Thompson says. “True selling is about figuring out what someone needs and figuring out how to meet that need. It’s a very honest and direct profession if you make it very honest and direct.”
During this time her husband Will, also a Marine veteran, was working as a stockbroker. Upon returning home one day, he brought with him a booklet from a company called Cookie Bouquet. The couple had been toying with the idea of going into business for themselves, when Thompson saw the concept she immediately decided this was what she wanted to do – the only problem was, she didn’t know how to make the company’s stunning cookies. This is when she saw the three magic words that forever changed her life: “For Franchising Information.”
“This was the best thing that ever happened to me because I didn’t know a lot about business, I had not been brought up in a family involved in any kind of business, and I didn’t even know most of the terms or practices, but with franchising, they taught me.”
Becoming an official franchisee in 1994, Thompson opened her first Cookie Bouquet in Austin, TX. In 1995 and 1997, she opened an additional two locations, and quickly began leading the company in market penetration and sales. As a franchisee of the company Thompson earned awards for “Top Performer, “Outstanding Customer Service” and “Masters Award.” After six years in the business Thompson sold her shops. This is when corporate office recruited her to the home office.
Thompson’s first official title was Shop Facilitator as title she requested to use to show others what she wanted to to -, help others grow their businesses. In first year working in this position Thompson visited 130 sites, teaching others how to grow and operate their shops more successfully. After building the company’s field program and filling most positions within the company, in 2004 Thompson was promoted to President.
All the while Thompson had also been actively involved with the International Franchise Association, attending meetings and sitting on panels. It was here she was introduced to Mike Bidwell, President of The Dwyer Group, “He is probably the smartest person I’ve ever met,” Thompsons says. A few years later Bidwell invited her to become President of their largest brand under The Dwyer Group umbrella, Mr. Rooter.
Questioning what the President of a cookie company could do for an industry leading plumbing company, Bidwell told her, “Business is business is business. Those good business principles and practices can be translated from one business to another. ” Thompson was very interested in joining the Dwyer Group as they were known from their franchising expertise and strong culture. “I always believed if you want to be a diamond, you have to surround yourself with other diamonds. The Dwyer Group is a large collection of diamonds.”
Onwards and Upwards
In 2006 Thompson joined the Dwyer Group in becoming President of Mr. Rooter.
Founded by Don Dwyer, what drew Thompson to the company more than anything was its instilled set of values called Live RICH, referred to as the Code of Values She also liked Mr. Rooter’s approach to giving a world-class experience to each and every customer.
“It was like coming home. Plumbers are a lot like Marines, they do a messy, hard job that no one wants to do, and in doing so are protecting the health and safety of the nation,” she explains.
Thompson’s role as President for Mr. Rooter entails many responsibilities.“[I] have to stay on the front of the wave, know what’s changing and growing, see around the corners, communicate plans and make sure our team knows and understands where we’re heading,” she explains.
In 2013 Thompson was also appointed the Director of Veteran Affairs for the Dwyer Group, a humbling experience for someone whose heart has always been with Veterans. “Our vets serve and sacrifice for us, and we should give theme every opportunity to prosper and have opportunities to start their own businesses.”
An advocate for the VetFran program a strategic initiative for the International Franchise Association, Thompson recently retired her position as Chairwomen of the program where she had the honor of serving for two years opposed to the standard one-year term.
“I love what we do in VetFran. I love that we have 580 franchisors giving discounts and opportunities to Veterans.” Partnering with the First Lady, together they lead the Joining Forces initiative and today have hired more than 65,000 veterans.
Thompson is also a speaker at the annual Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities program hosted by Texas A&M University. Along with other experts in the field, Thompson speaks to veterans interested in starting their own businesses about the franchising industry.
“Real life heroes attend this course,” Thompson says. One gentleman in particular stands out in her mind. Having lost both legs, he didn’t look at himself as being disabled, rather was enthusiastic about going out and building his business. “He had this light shining through him, it was amazing, she says.
All brands of the Dwyer Group have been consistently listed as top companies to work for or be part of as a veteran. To date the company has given $1.4 million in discounts to veterans and placed more than 240 vets into small business ownership positions.
“I believe in being one percent better tomorrow than today, and one percent better today than yesterday,” says Thompson, ”The Dwyer Group not only lives this belief we help others do the same.”
Creating the Vision
This year Thompson was presented the Bonnie LeVine award for women in franchising. Recognizing women who serve as industry role models, through their business and professional accomplishments, this was an experience Thompson would recall as one of her proudest and humblest moments.
“So many amazing women, with amazing lives, who have done so much for franchising have been winners of this award. I’m so humbled to be in that group,” she says.
On stage, Thompson used the opportunity to reflect on all the wonderful people in her life who have supported her along the way. From her husband, to her children, her parents, the Dwyer Group and her franchisees, Thompson says she is really just a reflection of everyone around her.
“I’ve seen strong women in franchising on every level, I love that. There is no glass ceiling in franchising,” Thompson says. “We’re customers, business owners, employees, marketers, operators, and we often lead with our heart. In franchising when you create results people don’t care what gender, color, or creed, you are, what they think about is what you’ve done.”
Thompson also says in her experiences working for both Cookie Bouquet and Mr. Rooter, her primary customers have been women. “Understanding and appreciating your customer is important. How you approach them even more so, it’s the reason we [the franchise industry] exist.”
Recalling the first time she saw Dina Dwyer, who was then on stage accepting the Bonnie LeVine award and sharing her vision, Thompson remembers thinking how she wanted to be like her. “It gave me a vision, and by recognizing women who have played an influential role in the industry it helps other women who are just coming up in the field to be able to vision and see where they can go.”
Thompson finds inspiration in many women in her life. On a daily basis she finds it in those she works with, when they’re working everyday to accomplish a goal. In her Mother, she sees it in how she raised her family. In her four sisters, it’s in their growing families and demanding careers. And in her grandmother, the youngest person to ever graduate from college in the 1930s, a time when most girls didn’t even attend college. Most notably however, Thompson finds inspiration in her daughter as she moves up in the ranks at ARAMARK, experiencing some the same beginnings she herself once did herself.
“I think of people who have come before me, they certainly laid a path for me that allowed me to be able to do the things I have done today. It inspires me to watch the next generation come up and do what they’re doing, they see an even broader horizon than I did.”
To women interested in joining the franchising industry Thompson says to first find your passion and then get into a franchise in that field. “Get in on a ground level and learn from there up. The sky is the limit.”
Looking to the Future
Franchising continues to grow rapidly and outpace the private sector, a trend Thompson believes will continue. “It’s a great way for consumers to have a consistency of experience but also have the personalization of knowing who the owner is,” she says.
With no plans to leave Mr. Rooter anytime soon, in her spare time Thompson is working on finalizing and launching her book, titled “What Matters in Business, From Cookies to Plumbing.” Finding enjoyment in speaking to groups, she hopes to combine the two to share things from her book with her franchisees and small businesses looking to grow.