He left school at 15, started a haulage business, and built it into the biggest plant and truck dealership in the country. The name is Thompson, TBF Thompson and the company TBF Thompson (Garvagh) Ltd.
Born above his parents' grocery shop in 1915, Thomas Bacon French Thompson was partly named in tribute to the terrible toll in the trenches on the Western Front in World War One.
When his father bought a Model T Ford, the first car in Garvagh, young Tom was driving it around the deserted side roads by the time he was 12. At 15 he joined the family business to serve behind the counter, at 18 he persuaded his father to buy a lorry to replace the horse and cart on the grocery round, and within a few years had built up such a thriving trade that a bigger lorry was needed, a 1.5 ton Bedford.
Before long he bought a three-ton Bedford for a milk contract, then hauled potatoes to Belfast and brought back loads of feeding stuffs and fertiliser or lime, buying yet another lorry as the business grew.
1940s -1950s, The Post War Boom
During World War II he and his friend P J Pattison Nutt leased several quarries from which they hauled stone to the airfields under construction at Nutt's Corner and Millisle.
In November 1946 he bought 70 ex-Army lorries at a war surplus sale at Toome, lining them up along Garvagh's Main Street ready for rebuilds to civilian specification. The good folk of Garvagh thought another World War had started.
In 1947 the partnership bought the Strabane Service Station, acquiring with it a young employee called R J (Bertie) Gillanders. It was the beginning of a lifetime's successful business partnership.
By the early 1950's the Thompson Motor Company had acquired a Hillman car franchise, together with Commer and Karrier commercial vehicles. The two-stroke Commer TS3 proved a best seller and Mr Thompson built the first extension to his premises.
Strabane Service Station was sold in 1953 and Bertie Gillanders moved to Garvagh where he and TBF worked long hours - the business was open late on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. Northern Ireland's road network was being improved and new housing was under construction, but tippers were hard to come by. So the hard working Bertie would seek out and buy lorries in England, bring them home, shorten their chassis and turn them into tippers.
Indeed the business grew so quickly that in 1958 Mr Thompson was advised to turn the Thompson Motor Company into a limited company. But the name was already registered to a firm in England, so the nearest choice was TBF Thompson (Garvagh) Ltd.
1960s, Pushing for Success in Belfast
In 1961 he bought the business of Leyland distributor J A Potter on Ravenhill Road in Belfast, changing its name to TBF Thompson (Belfast) Ltd. Within two years he held a show of his Leyland, Albion, Scammell and Ford Commercial franchises, and sold over £250,000 worth of vehicles in one week - a vast turnover for those days, comparable with £60 million today.
As early as 1963 two-way radios were fitted to service and other key vehicles, covering most of the province. With good product and service to match, the company won a major share of the market.
Garvagh was equally busy, and in 1966 Prime Minister Terence O'Neill opened extended workshops and offices.
Shortly afterwards TBF Thompson (Belfast) Ltd was sold to the long-established firm of Charles Hurst. The founder had another project in mind, following a call from another entrepreneur called J C Bamford of excavator fame.
But some still perceived Garvagh as being too far in the country, so Mr Thompson bought premises on the Shore Road, Belfast, to give better service to his scores of JCB customers in Belfast, Co Down and Co Armagh. The Bamford family including the founder's son, young Tony, now Sir Anthony attended the opening in 1969 by Prime Minister James Chichester-Clark. Before long JCB was market leader in Northern Ireland. Mr Thompson giving a record order worth £2 million to JCB. But the Garvagh Empire still had a long way to go.
1970 - 1990s, Branching out into Construction
In June 1971 TBF diversified by purchasing quarrying and road construction company R J Maxwell & Son Ltd (now known as Northstone (NI) Ltd), followed in a few months by Maxwell's sister company W M Bolton & Sons Ltd - a civil engineering firm based in Kilrea. Tommy Leighton joined the organisation to manage these companies and then in 1973 Kenneth Cheevers joined as contracts director.
In 1975 TBF Thompson (Properties) Ltd was formed and with the purchase of around 200 acres at Mountsandel in Coleraine, TBF was in the property development business. Other land acquisitions followed.
1977 saw the largest acquisition to date - Farrans Ltd - the long established civil engineering firm that had constructed airfields, power stations, reservoirs, factories and housing complexes all over the United Kingdom. With Farrans came its subsidiaries - Ready Use Concrete, Scotts of Toomebridge, sand suppliers and manufacturer of roof tiles, J T Glover quarry owners of Moneymore and Carmean Limeworks also of Moneymore, Strangford Ltd of Dunmurry and Dublin, plant and machinery dealers selling Kue Ken crushers, Thwaites dumpers and Priestman excavators.
1978 saw a significant change with the group being sold to Cement Roadstone Holdings, the Dublin based aggregates multi-national. The group continued to be managed by TBF, Bertie Gillanders and Kenneth Cheevers until 1985 when they retired to concentrate their efforts on Charles Hurst – the Belfast motor group which they had purchased personally in 1984.
1980 saw a major problem arising with JCB - they were unhappy with TBF selling Priestman excavators and told us to stop - Tom Thompson was not willing to be bullied so there was a parting of the ways. A journalist at that time wrote "JCB without TBF Thompson in Northern Ireland is similar to an Ulster Fry without bacon and eggs".
From 1985 the Group was managed by Ernie McClure who was assisted by John Brown, Denis McClure, Ralph Clarke, Sid Millar (of rugby fame), Ronnie McIntyre and Andy Magowan who headed up the plant and engineering division.
The plant and engineering division expanded in the period 1985 to 1999 selling a wide range of equipment to the construction and quarry industries. They were market leaders with many of the items they sold. Notable milestones were - Hino franchise in 1987, Bitelli paver franchise in 1988, acquisition of the Blackwood Hodge business in Belfast in 1990, Hitachi franchise in 1991 and the DAF franchise in 1995 with the purchase of commercial vehicle dealer GMS. In 1997 an extension trebled the size of the plant business at Mallusk which had been purchased from Blackwood Hodge. From this location many Terex dump trucks, Yale forklifts, Phoenix road building equipment were sold.
1999-2015, New Management
In 1999 another significant milestone was reached - the plant and machinery division was sold by CRH to a management buy-out team of Andy Magowan, Raymond Crilly and Mark McCluskey. This included the premises at Garvagh, plant depot at Mallusk, commercial vehicle business at Mallusk and the plant depot in Dublin.
In May 2001 the DAF premises at Mallusk were extended and refurbished which has continued with constant investment in the latest technology in the repair of commercial vehicles. DAF has been market leader in the UK for the past 16 years.
2004 saw the relocation of our plant business to a purpose built building at Rathcoole, Co Dublin. Full advantage was taken of the Celtic tiger years but unfortunately the operation there closed in 2010 because of the economic downturn.
Also in 2004 they extended their commercial vehicle back-up service to customers in the west of the province by building new premises at Portadown. These premises were doubled in size in 2007 because of demand.
In 2008 Thompson's were awarded the Montabert franchise, the market leader in hydraulic breakers.
The Recession years hit the commercial and construction industries hard, and despite the best efforts of management, the company was affected with employee numbers falling from 250 to 150.
Further sad news was to come in 1 January 2009 upon the announcement of Dr TBF Thompson’s death at the age of 93. Leaving behind a great legacy in the company which bears his name, the kindness and generosity of Dr Thompson continues with the charitable trust formed many years prior to his passing.
Thanks to astute leadership and staff dedication, the company stood firm amid the financial storm and fought back against the downturn, acquiring the Palfinger franchise in 2010 – a world-leading brand in truck-mounted cranes and a very welcome addition to the TBF product range.
2015 brought a series of accolades for Andy Magowan. Recognised for his achievements in service to economic development, Andy was named on the Queen’s Birthday Honours List, receiving a much deserved MBE. The awards didn’t stop there as a few months later, he obtained two more: ‘Transport Personality of the Year’ from Export & Freight and ‘Special Recognition’ for Services to Plant, Construction and Quarry sectors from Plant & Civil Engineer.
2015 also marked the 20th anniversary of the DAF Trucks and TBF Thompson partnership. In marking that event, DAF Trucks’ Managing Director, Ray Ashworth commented: “TBF Thompson is an excellent example of how relationships can flourish and can result in long-standing business partnerships - not just between dealer and manufacturer, but, more importantly, with local operators. “It’s no mean feat to have built up a successful business, particularly over the last decade! We have an established presence in Northern Ireland commanding some 25% of the market, and I know the brand is in safe hands for the next 20 years with TBF Thompson.”
2016, Another Chapter Begins
The new year 2016 brought an exciting name to TBF Thompson, Cummins Power Generators. Offering customers a superb choice of rental and industrial power solutions, this market-leading brand was an excellent introduction to the generator industry and a welcome addition to the long list of franchises which we already hold.
In June of 2016, Andy Magowan made the decision to retire after more than 40 years in a directorship role. His unwavering loyalty and dedication was a driving force behind the company’s success, leaving a lasting impression on many.
At the same time the reins of TBF Thompson were handed over to a management buy-out team involving Raymond Crilly (Managing Director and former Financial Director) together with fellow Directors, Alan Espie (Commercial) and Seamus Doherty (Plant). With years of experience between them, each director is an expert in his field and committed to keeping the TBF Thompson name at the forefront of plant and commercial vehicle business in Ireland.
The Present, Continuing Excellence
We have state-of-the-art IT systems to increase efficiency and provide our customers with the best back-up in the business. But regardless of new technology we will never lose sight of the strong service values that have driven our success. Under the careful management of joint Managing Directors Alan Espie and Seamus Doherty, we continue to invest in our greatest asset, our people and have recently strengthened our plant sales and commercial parts teams.
Representing world-class franchises including DAF, Hitachi, Palfinger, Cummins, Thwaites, Montabert, McCloskey and Bomag, our dedication to customers remains second-to-none and is the envy of our competitors.