From hoops to foods: Mike Thompson’s journey from college basketball to multi-million dollar farms

BY Preta Peace Namasaba January 22, 2024 9:26 PM EDT
Mike Thompson. Photo credit: Mike Thompson

As a forward on the Cornell University basketball team, Michael L. Thompson learned a lot about losing and winning. He has turned these valuable lessons into one of the largest Black-owned businesses in the United States. His sports leadership style has grown Fair Oaks Farms by 300 percent with $342 million in revenues.

Thompson identifies team sport has having influenced his leadership style.

“It’s teamwork. It’s working hard. It’s knowing how to win but also knowing how to lose and, even though you’ve lost, persistence, which I think is one of my hallmarks. You just learn how to be persistent and to go after your goals again, even though you got knocked down. That’s the biggest lesson I think a person derives out of sports, besides just the discipline nature of it itself,” he explained.

Thompson knew that it was statistically unlikely that he would join the NBA after college. He therefore sought academic success and a corporate career after graduation. Thompson worked as a supervisor trainee at Aldi Food Corp for eight years. McDonald’s then recruited him as a purchaser of protein, meat, and beef products.

He rose through the ranks from operations to regional manager and ultimately vice president of North America’s supply chain management. Thompson was responsible for $7 billion in annual purchases for all the franchise’s 14,000-plus restaurants in the United States and Canada. When the opportunity to own his own company came up, he could not pass on his childhood dream of owning a restaurant.

In 2003, Thompson acquired shares in meat supplier Fair Oaks Foods. He soon purchased the majority share and left his 19-year McDonald’s career to embark on his entrepreneurial journey. Thompson has leveraged his insider knowledge and strategic leadership to transform Fair Oaks Farms to a leading entity in the industry. This year, the company is beginning operations at a $134 million 150,000-square-foot facility in the Eastern Iowa Industrial Center.

“At the time, the company didn’t have a leader. I’ve always had a personal vision and dream about entrepreneurship and ownership of a company, and I thought this was a great opportunity and a way for me to leverage my McDonald’s experience with a company that’s doing business with McDonald’s,” Thompson on how he leveraged his experience.

Thompson regards himself as more of a coach than a CEO since he adopted his leadership skills through sports. His experience as captain has enabled him build successful collaborative partnerships between suppliers and corporate customers. Over the years, he has utilized innovative technology for premium product development and waste management.

Under Thompson’s leadership, Fair Oaks Farms has grown by 300 percent and broadened its reach in international markets. The company is currently a Tier-1 supplier of cooked bacon, meatballs, pork, and turkey sausage to top-notch corporations such as McDonald’s, Papa John’s, and Starbucks.