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Jere Thompson Jr. Leads Ambit Energy to Exceptional Growth
The winner of the 2015 Direct Selling News Bravo Leadership Award has found the formula for a fast start that keeps on flying. Ambit Energy Founder and CEO Jere Thompson Jr.—along with his Co-Founder and Chief Marketing Officer Chris Chambless and Chief Information Officer John Burke—has already led the young company from beginner to billion-dollar star. In just seven years, Ambit became the fastest direct selling company to reach $1 billion.
So far, a slowdown seems nowhere in sight. The company has increased in size by 50 percent over the past two years. With 2014 sales of $1.5 billion, Ambit offers electricity and natural gas services in 15 deregulated states and Washington, D.C., through a channel of more than 380,000 independent marketing consultants. Today Ambit is the 12th-largest direct selling company in the world and the 7th-largest in North America.
The prestigious DSN Bravo Leadership Award is presented to someone who personifies leadership, who guides and directs, and who leads those around him toward greater good, progress and achievement, all the while earning the respect and admiration of those he leads. On all counts, Jere Thompson satisfies those requirements.
Burke compares Thompson’s character and leadership style to the best parts of the very industry he serves. Burke says, “Jere represents everything good about the direct selling industry—integrity, entrepreneurship, optimistic thinking, self-development and a straightforward manner in business dealings.”
These qualities also infuse the mission that Thompson developed for Ambit: to build the finest and most respected retail energy provider in the country. This mission guides every move.
Thompson says that three decisions he has made since the beginning of Ambit stand out as the most pivotal to the success and growth of the company.
- First, the decision he and Chambless made to use direct selling as the vehicle for acquiring customers.
- Second, the decision Thompson, Chambless and Burke made to operate Ambit as a data processing company.
- And third, their decision to make every effort to attract and retain the best people to the staff as well as to the consultant community. They were convinced that success in business is all about having the right people in place.
All three executives, under Thompson’s leadership, worked together to create Ambit’s spectacular results.
Jere Thompson Jr. receives the Bravo Leadership Award for excellence in guiding his company as Co-Founder and CEO. He is pictured with DSN Ambassador John Fleming and Publisher Lauren Lawley Head.
Thompson became interested in starting an energy company because he wanted to take advantage of the deregulation of the electricity market in Texas—one of the first states to deregulate, and also one of the largest in the then $474 billion U.S. energy market. After all, he had entrepreneurial DNA. Thompson’s grandfather, Joe Thompson, essentially invented the convenience store in 1927 when one of his enterprising ice company employees started selling bread, milk and eggs from the ice house dock. Joe Thompson jumped on the idea of providing these staple products, eventually adding gasoline and coffee among other items, to customers hungry for convenience. Over the next many decades, 7-Eleven stores grew into the iconic chain we all recognize. Jere Thompson Jr., it could be said, is simply carrying on this family tradition of sensing opportunity and acting upon it.
After working in the family business for a while after college, Thompson decided to venture out on his own and created a fast-growing telecommunications network company, taking advantage of deregulation in that industry. Because of his experience in that telecom company, he knew he already had extensive knowledge of the basic structure that would let a new company switch and bill energy customers. He saw a chance to seize the window of opportunity in energy deregulation, but he wanted to be smart about it.
Thompson’s big, unanswered question: How to find customers at attractive costs to loyally pay their bills. He set about doing his homework.
One of his telecom co-workers explained that the kind of customers he wanted were exactly the kind that he would find through direct selling. He also strongly advised Thompson that if he were serious about direct selling, he really needed to meet with Chris Chambless, who had been one of the top managers at a telecom direct seller. In addition, Thompson also talked with experienced direct selling executives Michael Lunceford, Senior Vice President of Government Relations at Mary Kay; Joey Carter, who had been CEO of Home Interiors and Chairman of the Direct Selling Association; and Kenny Troutt, who had founded a fast-growing telecom direct seller.
|Co-founders Chris Chambless and Jere Thompson Jr.|
Every person he spoke with gave him new insights and unique advice. From Troutt: If he manages operations well, he’ll be successful. From Lunceford: Never sacrifice integrity for growth. And Carter told him: If he manages the business correctly, it’s a fantastic way to grow big, but get involved with DSA as soon as he can. In Chambless, he found a partner that clicked. They had lunch together on Friday, and on Monday they decided to start the business that is now Ambit Energy—and to fuel it with direct selling.
Thompson was surprised to find that one of Troutt’s observations about the people side of running Ambit proved true. As Troutt had predicted, Thompson’s most significant takeaway as a leader in the direct selling industry has been the stories he hears from the network about how their lives have changed for the better because of their success with Ambit.
“I had never been in a business where you came in contact with so many great people. That truly is one of the most wonderful aspects of the business that few people ever experience outside of direct selling,” Thompson notes. “It has been the most pleasant surprise about the whole journey.”
Chambless takes it in stride that Thompson reacts positively to the people impact. He says, “I heard someone say once that the definition of a gentleman is someone of great intellect and humor who never uses either to make someone else feel bad about themselves. If that is true, Jere is a gentleman.”
Chambless goes on to tell a story about the manner in which Thompson disposes of the many gifts he receives as CEO of Ambit—especially around Christmastime when gourmet sweets and meats pour in. The owner of the building within which Ambit is housed had an older man responsible for managing the parking lot. “I don’t know how many times I saw Jere bring him a turkey or ham or some of the other gifts he received at the office,” Chambless says. “Jere noticed this man, and quietly did what he could to help him out. I only know it because I saw it. He’s never said anything to me about it and never would.”
Clearly the people who become involved with Ambit on the consultant side feel Thompson’s leadership is something worth following. Once the business launched in August 2006, it had a fire like no other. In three years it had 60,000 consultants and 225,000 customers, plus, other than working capital, it was debt-free and on track to reach $400 million in revenue. By 2010 its growth was gaining attention in the national press. Inc. magazine named it the fastest-growing private company in America. The ranking measured revenue growth over a three-year span—2006 through 2009. Ambit’s growth: an amazing 20,369 percent.
Thompson notes that from the beginning, Ambit’s executives have worked to build a culture that attracts and retains the best people, and that virtually all of them are involved in creating, evaluating, testing and providing feedback on the systems throughout Ambit.
“You can’t think that IT, in a vacuum, can create what an organization needs because they can read your mind,” Thompson says. “They need constant feedback and guidance from throughout the organization. That’s not a natural state of affairs in most businesses in America. From the beginning we created organizational DNA where everyone works with IT as a friend and ally to build systems that support the channel that keeps the business growing.”
Thompson and his original executive team were focused on creating that culture of teamwork from the very beginning. Starting with the executives who joined him to launch the company—Chambless and Burke—and on to his financial right hand, CFO Laurie Rodriguez, who joined the company in 2011, Ambit’s culture is all about teamwork and communication. It starts with the wall-free offices in Ambit’s downtown Dallas headquarters. Everyone, including Thompson himself, works in an open space that facilitates dozens of conversations daily from one “desk” to the next. The “desks” that executives use are still the $19 tables they bought at Wal-Mart when they started the company.
|Ambit’s Jere Thompson Jr. gave the keynote address during DSN’s Global 100 Celebration in April.|
Burke, who has sat next to Thompson at those tables for the past nine years, says that Thompson has a genuine regard for all of the employees at Ambit. He says, “The employees value the fact that Jere always seems to have time to say hi or slow down and recognize people with a genuinely thankful countenance. He’s extremely approachable.”
Indeed, Thompson has been very intentional about creating the company’s culture, believing that culture is underrated in most companies. To him that’s because companies differentiate themselves through their people, and leaders may miss this point.
Chambless explains that one of Thompson’s guiding principles is that 10 percent of life is what happens to you; 90 percent is how you react to it. He says, “Jere lives this principle. In eight years I’ve never seen Jere lose his composure—not once. He believes his reaction to a crisis is much more important than the crisis itself, and he has disciplined himself to react calmly and positively to whatever comes his way. That approach helps everyone around him to remain calm and positive. That’s leadership.”
A Born Entrepreneur
Jere Thompson Jr. has been an entrepreneur for the past 23 years, founding CapRock Fiber Network in 1992 to build fiber and broadband data networks across Texas and neighboring states, and most recently, Ambit Energy to provide electricity and natural gas services to consumers. Ambit was named the fastest-growing private company in America in 2010 by Inc. magazine.
Thompson sits on numerous civic boards, including the Southwestern Medical Foundation, The Dallas Foundation, The Hoblitzelle Foundation, the Dallas Citizens Council, the Texas Business Leadership Council and Cistercian Preparatory School. He served for 11 years as a board member, including six years as Chairman, of the Texas Turnpike Authority, and later the North Texas Tollroad Authority. He continues to spend a great deal of time on regional and state transportation issues.
Thompson grew up in Dallas and graduated from Cistercian Preparatory School. He received a bachelor’s degree in economics from Stanford University and an MBA from The University of Texas in Austin. He and his wife, Carolyn, have been married 28 years and have five children.
In the spirit of a leader who spreads the glory of accomplishment to the team, Thompson says, “You have to have a culture that attracts, retains, rewards and recognizes your people. No one’s ever perfect. But we wanted to create an environment people would enjoy working in. That’s why we created open space so we could all be emotionally connected to the business. We know when to applaud, and we know when something needs to be fixed. John, Chris and Laurie work less than 20 feet from me. We can talk from our desks. We have 200 conversations a day without leaving the desk. That provides remarkable speed and agility. Nothing festers.”
Innovation and Integrity
Those employees are half of the team that has kept the company growing through innovation and smart management. Ambit looks for opportunities to fire up consultants—the other half of the team—with special promotions. Innovation that differentiates the company from its energy competitors is critical, Thompson insists. So Ambit gives consultants plenty of reasons to talk to prospects, including the opportunity for customers to earn Free Energy by referring others. In its home market of Texas, it also provides tools to help customers conserve energy and a Power Payback™ program to reward Texas customers with a bill credit when they reduce energy use during periods of extreme electricity demand.
“Consultants have to be excited to go out and present the Ambit opportunity and difference,” he notes. “When they can tout rewards like Guaranteed Savings or Free Energy, they know that no one else in the marketplace is offering that. Innovation is critical when they’re presenting to a customer. We have a recurring base of 1.2 million customers who could leave us at any time. Through these unique programs there is a value proposition that they want to keep.”
This year consultants got to offer a Zero Down promotion that let new consultants start an Ambit business with no sign-up fee. As Thompson puts it, it blew their socks off. Since Jan. 24, some 75,000 consultants have joined the business—the fastest period of consultant growth in Ambit’s history—positioning the company to continue to break its own records.
Ambit has fiercely guarded its reputation throughout its life. When Thompson refers to the company’s goal of being the finest and most respected retail energy provider in the country, he’s serious. He expects integrity from employees and consultants, and he has terminated rogue consultants
“We realized that if you instill discipline with a high likelihood of getting caught and a certainty of being punished for misbehavior, people respect you for it,” he says. “That has enabled us to grow the business, and we rarely have incidents to correct.”
High standards also have resulted in the company being recognized by J.D. Power as having the “Highest in Residential Customer Satisfaction among Retail Electric Providers in Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania”—and in New York the year before. The J.D. Power study examined satisfaction among residential customers of 82 ranked retail electric providers in nine states across five key factors: price, communications, corporate citizenship, enrollment/renewal and customer service. For Thompson, the recognition is more evidence that the company is living up to its own expectations.
Chambless sums up Thompson’s leadership approach and working style with a down-home example everyone can relate to. He says that when Thompson first approached him about building a company, he asked Chambless about his definition of integrity. “I told him,” Chambless relates, “it’s doing the same thing you would do in front of your grandmother that you would do if no one was looking. In our time working together at Ambit, Jere has never made one decision that his grandmother wouldn’t approve of. Everyone who knows him knows that. It’s easy to follow him.”