NMMA Hall of Fame Award
1992: C. Raymond Hunt, C. Raymond Hunt Associates and The Thompsons, Thompson Brothers Boat Company
The Thompson Brothers Boat Company was recognized for many years as the world’s largest boat building firm. Chris Thompson and his sons Roy and Grant, pioneered advances in wooden boat construction and fueled public awareness of pleasure boating during it’s formative years with affordable, innovative product.
The business began unexpectedly in 1904 on the family farm when Peter Thompson, having learned from winter jobs at the Racine Boat Company and Chris Smith Boat Works, decided to build a boat with his brother Chris. Offered $25 for their first effort, the two sold 20 more rowboats that summer before scrapping together $18.75 to place a small one-inch advertisement in Hunter-Trader-Trapper magazine.
The ad launched a mail order business in boats – unique in its time – prompting demand from resort owners, fishermen and hunters for all types of boats. A willingness to experiment with boat types and construction methods, gave the Thompson’s a jump-start in small boat building that soon overtook farming and involved the entire family.
Although limited by other business interests, Peter’s involvement lent the technical expertise to refine early product offerings of rowboats, canoes, and inboard motor launches. Wearing the many hats of owner and manager, Chris supplied the business sense to successfully steer the company through its infancy.
By 1912 the size of the business warranted a new three-story factory in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, and an unprecedented branch operation in New York in 1927. A collaboration with Ole Evinrude spurred growth further and was largely responsible for a lasting trend in which the Thompson’s designed and constructed boats to maximize outboard performance and satisfy the public’s growing interest in motoring.
Safety was another company tradition, beginning with the 1915 appearance of a “Safety First” slogan on promotional materials. Early proponents of positive flotation and balsa-core construction in glass boats and ultimately industry self-certification, the Thompson’s helped bring boat-building standards to a fractionalized industry.
Roy and Grant started in the business as teenagers varnishing oars and paddles, and were helping their father in sales and advertising efforts by the 1930s. In 1934, they would make their mark with their own business in northern Wisconsin as partners in Thompson Boat Mart, an “ahead of its time” boat dealership, selling and repairing boats and making water skis as an accessory.
With Peter’s death in 1946, Chris ran the company as president until retiring at the age of 79. During that time, his sons alternately worked between the boat building and retailing businesses, Grant cultivating talents in product development that would keep the company in the forefront with innovations, and Roy honing management skills that he would later exercise as CEO and president of Cruisers, Inc. Grant also began exhibiting his penchant for organizing the industry, serving as a founder of the Outboard Boating Club of America, a predecessor to the Boating Industry Association and NMMA.
In 1956, the brothers, along with second-generation family members, went into the water ski business fulltime with Thompson Brothers. Cruisers were initially envisioned as a response to outboard manufacturers’ demand for cabin cruisers. Instead, the company got its start covering orders for open models during a strike at the Peshtigo plant, making “Cruisers” a misnomer in terms of product line until some years later.
In 1968, Roy and Grant split their interests in the tow companies, Roy becoming owner of Cruisers and Grant owner of the ski business. Grant sold Thompson Skis a year later to retire in Florida, where he lived until his death in 1980. After 50 years in the business, Roy retired in 1978 as the last Thompson to run a boat manufacturing business.