September 06, 1999 12:00 PM

Taskmasters don’t come much tougher than Bob Thompson. For 40 years, from April to December, he pushed his road and highway workers hard, six days a week, to finish the job before the first frost made them stop. Their loyalty and sweat have helped make Thompson—owner of Michigan’s largest asphalt and paving business—a very rich man.

On July 18, after Thompson sold his Thompson-McCully company to an Irish firm for $422 million, he returned the favor, giving his 550 employees a $128 million chunk of his gains. “You realize that the people around you have gone through all the pain and suffering with you,” says Thompson, 67, who started his Belleville, Mich., business with $3,500 that his wife, Ellen, had earned substitute-teaching. “I wanted to pay them back.”

And how. Ninety of them became instant millionaires. Thompson’s profit-sharing scheme, which he developed secretly over a period of years, awards $2,000 per year of service to workers with retirement plans. Those without retirement plans got between $1 million and $2 million, depending on seniority and merit. “That’s what America should be all about,” says Thompson. “Everybody should get a piece of the action.”

Pete Mott, 68, who worked for Thompson for 33 years, is one of the millionaires. “It takes a while to sink in,” says the former asphalt-plant supervisor, who retired in 1992. He hasn’t decided what he’ll do with the windfall, but says of the boss who bestowed it, “He wouldn’t ask you to do anything he wouldn’t do himself. He’d come on the job and work right along beside you. Even if he had his suit on, he’d jump right in if you needed a helping hand.” But, Mott adds, Thompson is no teddy bear: “To get called into his office was not a good thing.”

A Midwesterner to the bone, Thompson has a doer’s disdain for gushers and sycophants, and frowns on favoritism. Just ask his three children: David, 37, who worked for his dad for 17 years before moving to a smaller, Ann Arbor firm last spring; John, 35, a seven-year veteran; and Anne, 31, who has been with the company for nine years. Like the other employees, their rewards were based solely on service to the company. “I wasn’t expecting anything,” says John. “All my dad has ever given any of his children is opportunities. It’s more than fair.”

For his part, Thompson stayed away when the checks were handed out by his regional managers. “I didn’t want to be there,” he says. “It gets too emotional.” He adds that he wants his employees simply “to tell their children and grandchildren about me.”

Thompson, the younger of two boys born to Claude, a farmer, and Anna, a schoolteacher, was nurtured and defined by the rhythms of rural Michigan life. He and his brother Ron awoke before dawn on the family’s Jonesville farm to milk cows and chop wood, then returned from school to homework and more chores. “We went to town on Saturday night to go to a movie or get a haircut,” he says. Thompson is proud of the values his parents instilled. “They knew their neighbors, they knew their families, they knew who they were,” he says. “They didn’t question themselves.”

Neither does their son. Thompson graduated in 1955 with an education degree from Ohio’s Bowling Green State University, where he met fellow student Ellen, now his wife of 44 years. During college, he began working on a road-construction crew. In 1956 he joined the U.S. Air Force as a fighter pilot. “You could only stay until about age 30,” he says. “It wore out your nerves.”

After his three-year hitch, he and Ellen moved to Detroit and started the contracting business, working out of their duplex. It was tough, but Thompson, who didn’t draw a salary for five years, wouldn’t quit. The couple eventually bought a two-story colonial in the suburb of Plymouth, where they still live. (The only tangible concessions to their staggering wealth are their black Lincoln Town Car and annual trips to Europe or Asia.) “Competitive people like myself are probably a little bit screwed up,” he says mat-ter-of-factly. “I’ve got a big ego.”

And, it turns out, a big heart. “It was,” he says of sharing the wealth with his workers, “the right thing to do.”

Christina Cheakalos

Kelly Williams in Belleville

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