The Thompson family: Pottery business is another way the family spends time together creating art
Portrait 2011 — Volume 2: Hot Right Now
One minute, it’s a 60-year-old man seeking advice.
Charles Carson had just finished painting black, zebra stripes on a white vase when he asked Lynn Thompson, “How dark will the stripes turn out?”
Lynn’s son, Chris, joined the consultation, and the two determined it would lighten to a charcoal color. For a deep, dark black, Carson would need to go over his stripes with a second coat.
Another minute, it’s a preschool-age girl crying as her family is about to leave the party room at Angelo’s Pottery Painting and Glass Fusing.
Lynn emerges from the back room with a helium-filled balloon, then seeks out Lorena Thompson for help tying the knot.
“She wants a purple balloon,” Lynn tells Lorena. “I’m going to make her happy.”
The knot gets tied, the balloon gets delivered, and ... the crying stops.
Then, it’s an employee with a question about a bowl a customer painted.
Kalena Castaneda, one of the four artists employed at Angelo’s, walks into the back room where Lorena is dipping painted, clay-bisque products in a vat of blue liquid, preparing the items to be fired in the kiln. Castaneda asks, “Beige bowl, rooster inside?”
Before she can finish, Lorena is answering, “In the kiln.”
And Castaneda exits the room saying to herself, “She knows what I’m going to say.”
Lynn and Lorena Thompson own Angelo’s, 2478 Patterson Road, where the married couple of 29 years can do it all.
They help customers choose colors and approaches to painting the clay-bisque products they sell, then fire them into a finished product. They host private parties in a room separate from the main studio. They handle any crisis they detect, including providing extra balloons to pacify crying children.
The Thompsons bought Angelo’s in June 2009, thinking ahead to retirement by seizing an opportunity to own a business where they and their three children spent many enjoyable family outings together.
The move made good business sense to them, but it raised a few eyebrows.
Their oldest daughter, 24-year-old Lyndsay, heard a consistent refrain from family friends: “They did what?”
It was more of an exclamation than a question.
“Everyone knows how busy they already are,” Lyndsay Thompson said, “and they can’t imagine (Lynn and Lorena have) added another thing to it. Shock and awe is the first response.”
On the other hand, Lyndsay said, “If anyone can do something like this, it’s my parents. They never run out of energy.”
Lynn and Lorena pack so much into their weekdays they should be tired come the weekend. They say they’re not.
Lynn is the chief financial officer, second in command, of Grand Junction real-estate and property-management company Bray & Co. Lynn estimates the job consumes 50 of his hours every week, and the most important man in Bray & Co., President Robert Bray, said Lynn’s dedication has few rivals among the people Bray has encountered.
“He doesn’t watch the clock,” Bray said. “He works many late hours, whatever it takes to get the job done.”
When his duties at Bray & Co. are squared away, Lynn often heads to Grand Junction High School, where he helps Lorena coach the academic team and is a member of the booster club. He estimates he puts in about 800 hours a year with the academic team and about 36 hours a month with the booster club. In the latter, he said, he has slowed down, spending about one-third of the time he did when he was president of the booster club for several years.
Lorena’s best guess on the time she devotes to teaching — her classes are Honors English, Advanced Placement English Literature and Advanced Placement Art History — is about 60 hours per week. That includes grading papers at all hours of the day and sometimes in the strangest places, such as the doctor’s exam room or the bowling alley.
Lyndsay said one of her earliest memories of her mother is Lorena carrying a bag filled with papers to grade. Perhaps not so coincidentally, Lyndsay is now an English teacher at Grand Junction High. When she and her brother, Chris, prepared to leave Angelo’s on a recent Saturday afternoon, she said to Chris, “I have 120 papers to grade this weekend.” She also admitted she has her own assortment of bags for carrying them.
Lorena’s time estimate for teaching doesn’t include coaching the wildly successful GJHS academic team, which has won 14 of the past 15 Colorado State Knowledge Bowl championships, including the past seven. She figures she puts in more than 1,000 hours a year coaching, and the last time she kept track, she found she had put in 1,200 hours with one of the most motivated groups she ever coached.
Grand Junction High School Principal Jon Bilbo has been around for just a few of Lorena’s 22 years at GJHS, but it didn’t take long to understand “she’s an outstanding teacher,” and “you can’t beat her as an academic team adviser.”
Moreover, Bilbo said, “Kids really respect her, and they’ll go out of their way to do whatever she asks them to do.”
Chris Thompson, a senior double-majoring in art history and anthropology at the University of Colorado, took all of his mother’s classes in high school, as did many of his friends, and he heard a recurring theme when they opined about Lorena.
“They all say she makes major impacts on their lives,” Chris said.
Count Neil Okey among the impacted former students. The 2004 GJHS graduate, who is nearing completion of his master’s degree at New York University with designs on medical school after that, was a Knowledge Bowl All-American and by his own admission not always challenged in his high school classes. In Lorena Thompson he found a teacher who was demanding but fair and didn’t let him skate to an easy A in Honors English.
“She took someone who found high school pretty easy, and she pushed my comfort level and intelligence and knowledge,” he said. “She really does inspire kids to want to do more work.”
What all of the aforementioned means for Angelo’s is two people with track records of commitment and success are running the business.
Lynn and Lorena did their homework before buying Angelo’s, then made a number of business-enhancing moves as owners:
• They added glass fusing and silver-clay jewelry to the offerings.
• They brought in 10 times the inventory, which Lyndsay handles deftly and watches like a hawk. Lorena says her daughter can walk in the front door, scan the room and within seconds note the items that have moved from the shelves.
• In September they moved a couple hundred yards down Patterson Road from Parkwest Plaza to Patterson Village Square. They also went from leasing their space to owning it.
• They put all three of their kids to work. In addition to Lyndsay with inventory, Chris worked full-time at Angelo’s last summer, and Allisyn, a junior at GJHS, works part-time.
Lynn said gross revenues for the last six months of 2010 were up 8 percent over the final six months of 2009, and he expects Angelo’s will experience double-digit growth in 2011. The year is off to a great start, as he said, “This January was just gangbusters for us.”
Lynn and Lorena bought Angelo’s with retirement and posterity in mind. They can’t fathom sitting still in retirement, and they want to leave a thriving business to their children.
Lorena is only 50 years old but has enough time in to qualify for retirement from School District 51. She’s not ready to stop teaching, but Lynn, 51, said Lorena will retire from teaching well before he qualifies for retirement from Bray & Co.
To that, he added, “She’s way too young not to do anything.”
One thing both have learned about Angelo’s is: It’s work, but it’s fun. Allisyn Thompson sees how her parents enjoy it, especially her dad.
“He comes home happy, wishing he could work more often,” she said.
So, he spends some weeknights at Angelo’s doing the bookkeeping, and he and Lorena are staples there on weekends. Again, while it’s work, it’s fun, and Lorena said the two consider it quality time together. Much like coaching the academic team and being involved in their kids’ lives, the things that keep them busy are shared interests that they get to do together.
What Lynn and Lorena can’t do until retirement, however, is spend as much time at Angelo’s as they’d like. As is, they may spend more time there than they think.
Castaneda said she sees Lorena working and asks herself, “How is this lady here? Half the time we’re trying to get her out of here.”
Likely all that would do, though, is lead her to find something else to keep busy.
“There’s so many things to do,” Lorena said, “and you live once.”
Lynn and Lorena entrust Angelo’s day-to-day operations to their artists, and they consider the quartet a godsend.
“Our artists are why this can work,” Lorena said of owning the business now, adding each artist is completely different, adding to the variety and creativity Angelo’s can offer.
In turn, the artists realize the difference the Thompsons make at the store.
Castaneda marvels at their dedication and efficiency, and she admires how calm they remain during the most hectic times, which subside with them still smiling.
As a result, “They’re the kind of people you can never say no to,” she said.
Castaneda is amazed, too, at their ability to remember the names of customers and what they did while at Angelo’s. That was on display when Lorena saw Lynn across the room with a painted clay cat in tow.
“Doesn’t have a name on it?” Lorena asked.
Lynn picked up a marker, started writing the name Irene on the bottom of one of the cat’s feet, then proclaimed, “It does now.”
The customers recognize they’re in good hands, too. Jennifer Shook, who became a regular customer about a year ago, said Lynn and Lorena shine in customer interaction. They’re good with ideas, encourage people to be creative and are adept at helping customers achieve the outcome they seek, she said.
Better yet, she said, “I feel like I’ve found great friends in the Thompsons. They’re friends to a lot of people.”
When the day comes that Angelo’s is their primary work focus, Lynn and Lorena expect to have more time for some other pursuits that have had to wait. They bought property near Vega Reservoir a few years ago, but still haven’t put up a cabin.
Lynn would like to restore the four collector vehicles he owns, be more active at the school-board level, take some college courses and go fishing more often. Lorena would like to start reading the pile of books she has set aside for retirement and maybe watch some of those television shows her students talk about, but she’s never seen.
In other words, they’ll still be busy. And their friends still will wonder when the Thompsons get any sleep.