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Kate Bachman Kate Bachman
Senior Editor

Corner Office to Corner Café

March 29, 2024

MetalForming chats with stamping company leaders Ann Stirling, CEO, and Lettie Thompson, COO, of Thompson Machine, the Tool & Die Group Inc., who relay their thoughts as Ann passes the company leadership to daughter Lettie. 

Ann Thompson, CEOMF: Ann, please tell me about your company.

Ann: We started in our garage in the late ‘70s, manufacturing silver bezel cups for the jewelry industry. Eventually we grew out of the jewelry market and our garage and into manufacturing larger companies’ metal stampings and tool and die. I bought out my former husband and I've had the business since 1999. So we're a small, woman-owned business in Albuquerque, NM.

MF: What is one major accomplishment that you are proud of?

We try to be a green company. We are 100% solar powered. We installed our own water processing plant so that the water that exits our plant is clean before it goes into the sewer. The older I get, the more I want to support those things that I really believe in.

MF: What concerns you as a manufacturing company leader?

How can we get more of our youth interested in manufacturing and in how things work? How do we develop talent? It really takes time to develop the skills that are necessary in this business—especially in tool and die. 

MF: Keeps you up at night? How do you work to resolve it?

I worry sometimes about the direction of manufacturing. As a business leader, you must have vision of where you see your company going. You have to stay abreast of political changes, economic changes, and the market. I think that vision has to be shared with all of the people who contribute to the company.

MF: How do you encourage and motivate your team?

We reinvest in newer equipment and better technologies. I think the better working environment and tools that you provide for your people, the more they feel valued and the better they can do their jobs. When we do our end-of-year planning, I ask, ‘What do you want this year?’ They're the ones who use it. They go to the drawing board, have discussions, and come back and say, “We really need to upgrade this.’ Then when we buy a new machine, everybody's eyes are twinkling about the new technology and can't wait to use it. That's a really gratifying feeling. It serves our associates, and it serves our customers.

MF: What were your references in transitioning Thompson Machine leadership? 

I consulted books, and with people in various walks of life who I consider experts and friends: estate planners, lawyers, business owners who sold their business to their kids. And you have to talk to the people you want to involve with it to make sure they want to be a party to it.

All of my key, very knowledgeable people stayed with me when I purchased the company, and I couldn't have made it without them. So I’m going to give them part of the business when I retire. They've earned it. I consulted with them even before talking to Lettie and they asked Lettie to come on board. So I'm passing the torch to Lettie and a couple of other people here. I really believe in benefiting the whole. 

MF: What does it mean to you that Lettie is continuing the business that you built?

Oh my goodness. I'm thrilled to death. I'm so gratified that this business is going to continue. Lettie is an asset—and the rest of our team believes that too. I'm really excited to see the direction the business will take and I know that the business is in good hands. I think everybody's going to work together really well and complement one another.

MF: Lettie, what was your childhood like as the daughter of manufacturers? 

Lettie: Lettie ThompsonI kind up grew up here, just doing random things around the shop and then doing jobs for pay as I got older: drawing parts for identification, doing tooling inventory, packaging, quality inspections. I translated all of our marketing materials into Spanish, and accompanied my Mom on trips to Mexico as her official interpreter. 

Growing up, my Dad and Mom would challenge me to figure things out. ‘I don't know’ was an unacceptable answer. I remember when we were skiing one time, we got stuck on a chair lift for a long time. My Dad asked, ‘Lettie, how do you think this chair lift works?’

I was seven. I said, ‘We don't have time for me to explain that, Dad.” And he answered, ‘Oh, we have nothing but time.’ 

Whenever I don't understand something, I know I can figure it out. That resourcefulness is something that both my mom and dad really taught me. Figure it out; give it your best shot. And then if you can’t, get help. So much learning goes on in that process.

MF: What prompted your decision to make a career change and take over the family business?

After I graduated college, I went into healthcare for 25 yr. because I wanted to help people. In this business, you're still taking care of people, whether our customers or our employees. It's all very personal. You're working with employees and figuring out how to pull out their potential … how we can all fit together and what we all can contribute. I think at the end of the day, that's what's most important. 

MF: What steps have you taken to transition to a leadership role?

I don't think my Mom realized how much information she has to pass on. She has her finger in every piece of the pie. I’m learning gradually and I think that is key to the success of this transition. I’m starting with each pie, focusing on one section at a time rather than everything at once.

MF: Because we are headquartered in Cleveland, I have to ask: Who is your favorite Rock & Roll Hall of Famer?

Ann: I love Led Zeppelin, but if I had to just pick one musician, it's Elton John. He gives credit where credit is due. I respect that.

Lettie: I just really love how Michael Jackson and Madonna have really empowered the musicians of today. 

Industry-Related Terms: Die, Drawing
View Glossary of Metalforming Terms

Technologies: Management, Tooling, Training


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