Westnet CEO Gordon Thompson meets with his staff at his company’s headquarters in Canton. (Photo courtesy of WestNet Inc.)
In a city that takes pride in its billion dollar health care industry, Gordon Thompson and his medical research supply company has established a solid piece of business real estate.
Started in 1994, the Canton-based Westnet Inc. now has sales of about $10 million a year — and is the state’s prime vendor for medical supplies. His client list includes some of the nation’s most powerful medical institutions: Boston Medical Center, Partner’s HeathCare, Harvard Medical School, MIT, Dana Farber and Beth Israel Hospital, to name a few.
Thompson, 51, readily admits that his growth was in large part due to his ability to overcome what he saw as a troublesome obstacle — himself.
“I had to learn how to be patient,” he says. “I had to learn how to listen and I had to learn how to lead. There’s one thing I know now. You can never stop learning. In the beginning, I just didn’t understand why we weren’t getting contracts. But now we just keep it moving forward.”
Regardless of the setbacks.
Thompson grew up near White Plains, New York and came to Boston to attend Northeastern University in the mid-seventies. Fortunately, Thompson had an older brother attending Tufts University at the time, and didn’t find Boston a difficult transition.
“It wasn’t culture shock for me,” Thompson said. “I wasn’t intimidated by the national media image of Boston during the busing crisis. Honestly, there were places in New York at the time that blacks stayed away from. So when I came here I just had to be careful about using public transportation and not ending up in Charlestown or Southie. Its ironic now that I visit these communities for business and social occasions.”
He graduated with undergraduate and graduate degrees in accounting and finance and later went to work with IBM, Johnson & Johnson and, finally, the Grimes Oil Co., a Boston based minority owned firm. While working there as chief operating officer, Thompson said, he gained valuable experience on owing and operating a small business. He then left to start Westnet.
Originally designed as a business consulting firm, Westnet struggled for the first six months before opportunity struck. As Thompson tells the story, he was reading the weekly state report that detailed all goods and services that the state needed and were accepting bids.
One item caught his attention — a bid for electro-surgical pencils.
As it turned out, one of Thompson’s friends from his days at Johnson & Johnson had just returned from Asia where he purchased a shipment of those pencils that were initially intended to be sold in upstate New York.
Because Thompson was registered as a business in Massachusetts, he was able to bid for the electro-surgical pencil job. By offering a competitive price and the same quality, Thompson was able to win it.
He hasn’t looked back since.
As Thompson explains, business is just that — a business. And he has earned his way by keeping costs down, delivering quality products at competitive prices, hiring quality people and maintaining a company mantra of keeping customers happy.
“One thing that I’ve learned is that you can’t take the people that you work with for granted,” Thompson says, “Every thing that I have earned at Westnet is thanks to the staff. It’s a blessing.”
What Thompson doesn’t like to talk about is his own ability to perform whatever is necessary, everything from driving delivery trucks to taking purchase orders.
Thompson has received help along the way. One such contact was Milton Benjamin, the chief executive officer of Initiative for a New Economy (INE), a group whose mission is to improve the state of minority owned businesses.
Thompson was very appreciative of their work “INE is always available to us, playing a pivotal role … on issues ranging from customer acquisition to technology to business strategy,” Thompson wrote. “It’s a feeling of great comfort.”
It was INE that helped Thompson land Partners Health care as a client.
Business accomplishments aside, what makes Thompson one of the city’s best kept secrets is his advocacy for at-risk and in-need inner city youths.
Ten years ago, he started Mass Youth Committed to Winning (MYCW), an education-based athletic program for children in fifth to tenth grades. The mission of the group is clear: “To inspire and teach.”
“When we started, I was doing everything, from driving the bus to mentoring the kids to coaching basketball,” Thompson said.
Though still actively involved, Thompson said he had to turn over day-to-day operations. But his imprint is still tangible. MYCW started at Roxbury Community College with a handful of kids and now has nearly 100 participating in its educational and athletic programs.
“We knew back then these young kids were headed for trouble,” he said. “Most of them didn’t have fathers in the home and, as a result, had little sense of right or wrong.”
In addition, Thompson explained, they were learning at way below standards. He said he was “astonished” to learn that some of his charges were in the seventh or eighth grade — but being taught third-grade math. “We wanted to keep teens from going down the wrong path.”
As with his business, Thompson believes in taking a hands-on approach.
“You can’t help anybody unless you have your own act together,” he says.
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