Inside Track: Study abroad trip sets foundation
Urbaneer founder Bruce Thompson has undergrad experience in Spain to thank for tech career.
In the late 1980s, Bruce Thompson was struggling with Microsoft Excel while working at Hewlett Packard, so he posted a question on a forum connecting HP offices and left work for the day.
As Thompson settled in the next morning, he read a response from an HP employee in Japan, and a light went off in his head. Shortly thereafter in 1989, Thompson left his early career position as a financial analyst to begin a tech startup based on his newfound discovery.
The business was a platform using the early internet to connect people for networking, whether the people were from alumni associations or industry groups, much like LinkedIn is used today. The business, Online Management Services, failed, but the foundation of starting a company and attempting to build it has stayed with Thompson throughout his career.
“Online communities were such a new concept, and the whole notion people could connect online and have a transaction of information was a foreign idea,” Thompson said. “It was a tad too early, there weren’t enough people online. But in my lifetime, that was my early 20s, it was something so new and 25 years later, that’s the norm and how business is conducted today.
“It was a really interesting moment and realization the world is changing.”
Now, Thompson is the co-founder and president of Urbaneer, a Grand Rapids company working on living space innovation. His current job is a marrying of his childhood experiences watching his father, a civil engineer, and a technology career that took him and his wife of 30-plus years to 15 different homes in five states and three countries.
Thompson’s great-grandfather, Theodore Williams, was one of the founders of the Grand Rapids engineering firm Williams & Works, and his father eventually worked for the firm. With his father, Thompson walked work sites and development sites, and his interest in real estate and construction was born at an early age.
Once in college, the draw to the growing technology industry was strong. He went to Aquinas College before transferring to the University of Michigan, where he studied abroad in Spain.
“I can trace everything back to that experience, which put me on an international track,” Thompson said. “My whole career stems from that trip as an undergrad, which led to a graduate degree in international business and my tech career. It all threads back to Spain.”
Back in the United States, Thompson wanted to get to graduate school, so he transferred back to Aquinas, which would allow him to graduate quicker than U-M and expedite his education track to Arizona’s Thunderbird School of Global Management, where Thompson graduated from in 1987.
Throughout his career, no matter what company he worked for, Thompson led business development. He brought in new business, helped companies launch new markets or verticals, and led partnerships and innovations.
“The tech world is so driven by innovations and the next wave of new markets, there was always opportunities for me to use my skill set,” Thompson said.
Following his brief stint as an early tech entrepreneur, he worked for Kalamazoo software startup and spent quite a bit of time in Asia. On a trip to South Korea, he read about Vint Cerf, who is considered one of the “fathers of the internet” and helped write the protocol so much of the world uses today.
When Thompson landed in Seoul, he emailed Cerf, who was working at MCI Communications, which at the time was one of the major competitors to companies like AT&T. It was later sold to Verizon, and the name disappeared. Cerf, in his early 70s, now is the chief internet evangelist at Google.
Cerf answered the email, and Thompson soon was working for MCI in Washington, D.C., in new business development.
“I was working with some of the smartest people and minds working on internet applications,” Thompson said. “I’ve never been afraid to reach out and connect with someone.”
Two years after he joined MCI, Thompson joined Proxicom as vice president of corporate development, which took him to Germany and Spain, where he helped launch operations and joint ventures in Europe.
In 2000, he moved back to Washington and spent the next seven years working for tech companies in various development roles, before his family decided it was time to move back to West Michigan.
“It was not an easy task, we were established in Washington, but there’s just something about this area that pulls you back,” Thompson said. “We came back just as the recession was starting and without any firm career path. It was mostly motivated by quality of life and trying to do something I was a little more passionate about.”
When he arrived back in West Michigan in 2007, Thompson had little semblance of a professional network. He commuted to Washington for work for two years but wanted to further settle in Grand Rapids and reinvent himself from a purely technology-based career to areas of life he was more interested in, including the use of technology and the future of physical space and how humans use their surrounding environments.
Thompson reached out to then-Mayor George Heartwell and The Right Place CEO Birgit Klohs.
“When I put out feelers, I found individuals who were super receptive to me and helped me further network,” he said. “The fact I could email the mayor or Birgit and they were open to me as an individual and not connected to a company, that said a lot to me about the climate here in West Michigan.”
As he was settling into Grand Rapids, he was helping a Spanish renewable energy firm, Bergé Logistica Energética, find a partner in 2009, when Klohs suggested reaching out to Mike VanGessel and Rockford Construction. Two days later, the parties were meeting.
Thompson’s participation in the Rockford Bergé venture was the beginning phase in a three-phase relationship with Rockford Construction. He now considers himself in the middle of the third phase with Urbaneer, a startup launched by Rockford Ventures.
The second phase was Thompson’s hiring as chief strategy officer in 2011, which lasted until the full independent launch of Urbaneer in late 2015.
“Bruce spent a significant portion of his career in the technology industry, gaining insights into user needs and developing products to bring to market in a highly competitive industry,” VanGessel said. “As the driving force behind Urbaneer, Bruce still uses demographics, global trends and human-centered design thinking, but he is now applying that knowledge to building solutions to make interior spaces live larger.”
Urbaneer is the fourth startup Thompson has been a part of during this career, and while not a career path he suggests for everyone, it can be exhilarating and fulfilling, especially as he hears more people talking about the company.
He fully expects the company, which looks at how people live and helping transform the way they use a physical space, to be global in five years. Urbaneer helps “spaces live larger” and helps developers across the country with micro-unit apartments, and Thompson is building a concept house in Heritage Hill, which he believes can be used across the globe.
“We’re in 2017, by 2022, we’ll be a global firm; Hong Kong, London, throughout the world,” Thompson said. “The problems we’re trying to solve are greater than Grand Rapids with commonalities no matter where you go: affordable housing, aging in place, people wanting to do more with less space, lifestyle decisions. It’s not a West Michigan-specific small business.
“We want to be large enough to service global clients.”