Thompson Electric keeping current in Laurel for 50 years

Laurel Leader
Bob Thompson: "Remember, whatever you do is always going to be there ...be confident that what you do is right

This is part of our Landmark Businesses series.

A half century ago, long before social media, 20th-century entrepreneur Robert "Bob" Thompson relied on word of mouth and reputation to attract clients in his hometown of Laurel.

An electrician who had worked in the Washington metropolitan area for Ray's Electric Motor Repair Service, C&P Telephone Co. and Jack Stone Lighting and Electrical in his early career, Thompson, 79, said he'd always aspired to have his own business, Robert L. Thompson Co.

Thompson and his wife, Sonia Thompson, settled in Laurel with their young daughters, Connie and Sally, in 1963. Four years later, the couple founded their own business.

"We knew so many people that it started off with what we could handle, then Bob got the race tracks, which had a big impact on our early success," Sonia Thompson, 77, said.

As the company's secretary treasurer, Sonia Thompson said she took their son, John, born in 1969, downstairs to the basement of their home in his "little jumper chair" every morning while she did paperwork.

In 1988, John Thompson graduated from Laurel High School and went to work for his father. Today he is the second-generation president of the company.

"John learned very quickly and was easy to teach," Bob Thompson said.

Electrical products and codes are always changing, John Thompson said, but the nature of customer relationships in the town hasn't changed over the 50 years the company has become a Laurel landmark business.

"Most of our customers are like family," John Thompson said. "We usually know where our customers live without even looking up their addresses."

This year, R. L. Thompson Electric celebrates its golden anniversary with plans to build a garage and freshen up the interior at its office on Lafayette Avenue.

Small town

Bob Thompson and Sonia Bohanis married in Hyattsville, in 1958. The couple purchased a new home off Gorman Avenue in Laurel, where they still live, in the year John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

Laurel's townspeople shopped almost exclusively on Main Street in the early 1960s, when there was no Laurel Mall.Like most small towns, everyone knew everyone, according to Sonia Thompson.

Laurel's population, which weighed in at about 8,500 in the 1960 census, was poised to boom. Development was planned throughout Laurel, including Fairlawn, West Laurel, the Route 197 corridor and Maryland City.

Laurel High School, bursting at the seams of its original brick building on Montgomery Street, moved to the new building on Cherry Lane in 1964.

Bob Thompson said he took over work at the Freestate Raceway (now Laurel Park) from Laurel electrician DeWitt Donaldson, founder of Donaldson Funeral Home.

"There was always a huge amount of work needed before the races started; we had to have electricians on standby during the races," Thompson said.

A year or so after its startup, the family moved the business to a two-car garage on First Street, leased from prominent Laurel landowner J. R. Jones.

Thompson knew Jones from the racetrack, where Jones supplied hay and feed. Jones rented the space to him for only $50 a month as "a favor," Thompson said.

As a young boy, John Thompson said he used to crawl around in a haystack in a barn at the stone Fairall Foundry, near the family business.

Sonia Thompson followed the media coverage when Arthur Bremer shot George Wallace from the First Street office in 1972, and said she watched the floodwaters "coming up from the Patuxent River" there during Hurricane Agnes later that year.

The country's Bicentennial brought substantial work. Bob Thompson said R. L. Thompson Electric set up "all the electric during the Bicentennial Celebration" the city of Laurel held at the racetrack.

In 1980, the Thompsons bought a brick house a short distance from First Street and moved the office to 106 Lafayette Ave.

Today, Garrett — a 6-year-old black lab mix and third in a line of Thompson office dogs — greets visitors alongside office manager Janette Lovell, the wife of John Thompson's childhood friend, Brad Lovell.

From Lafayette Avenue, Sonia Thompson said she enjoyed watching the train carrying Ringling Brothers and Barnum Bailey Circus roll through the Laurel station.

Sally Thompson Linsenmeyer worked at her parents' business briefly during high school in the late 1970s and part time as a young mother.

John Thompson's wife, Joanna Thompson, said it's hard to get Bob and John to talk about anything but electric work whenever father and son are together — there's always some new gadget or job of interest.

"We've had great employees," John Thompson said. "Many of my father's employees have gone on to start their own businesses."

Sonia Thompson said her husband was a teacher and mentor to many of his staff.

John Thompson said his father always told him to "remember, whatever you do is always going to be there — the work you do will never disappear — be confident that what you do is right."

R. L. Thompson Electric has performed work at Patuxent Place, "the beautiful McCeney House" at Fourth and Main streets, Patuxent Glen, Carriage Hill and for the city government, Laurel Department of Public Works and Laurel Department of Parks and Recreation.

Kim Hirsig, community manager at Majerle Management, which provides services to landlords throughout central Maryland, said she was so impressed with R. L. Thompson Electric's help in diagnosing problems and assisting utility owners that she's been a steady customer for almost 10 years.

"They are wonderful, very organized and on the ball with quick response time," Hirsig said.

Laurel native Marlene Collins, an administrator at Laurel accounting firm Bormel, Grice and Huyett, which counts itself among Thompson's customers, knows the Thompsons personally and said she trusts them.

"We see [the Thompsons] around everywhere — they're a great family and a great business," she said. "John is a true gentleman, a hard worker and always pleasant on and off the job."

At its peak in 1989, R. L. Thompson Electric employed 30 staff members and provided commercial and residential services in Maryland, D.C. and Virginia.

The company hired high school and college students to help out in the spring and summer, John Thompson said, when wiring swimming pools and hot tubs brought in seasonal work.

Clients have included celebrities such as Hillary Clinton, Linda Carter, Sam Russell, J. W. Marriott III and Sugar Ray Leonard.

Dawna Christian, of Fulton, said she's been a residential customer since 2004 when a contractor installing a patio in her new home referred them to her. Both father and son, she said, have focused on building a lasting relationship.

"It's always about that next time," she said. "They are fabulous, the only electricians who have ever done work in our home."

When the city of Laurel's first electrical inspector, Arthur Hesse, died in 2007, Bob Thompson filled in for about six months.

Laurel's population had reached more than 25,000 by the time Bob and Sonia Thompson officially retired on New Year's Eve in 2011.

Sonia Thompson said, "We've made many amazing friends through the years in Laurel."

John Thompson said he "sees dollar signs" when new housing communities crop up. After gradually downsizing to a staff of four since the 1990s recession, he said he is enjoying working close to home.

"Dealing with our local people is really awesome; I enjoy helping people," Thompson said.

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