2003 Harvey E. Beech Outstanding Alumni Award
L. Donnell Thompson ’81
African-Americans spend approximately $36 billion while staying in the 80,000 hotels and inns across the United States. Yet the number of large hotels and inns owned by African-Americans is relatively small. Donnell Thompson is using his skills and entrepreneurship to alter those statistics, one hotel at a time.
Donnell knows all about rising to the challenge. As a high school senior in Lumberton, he earned a spot on North Carolina’s Shrine Bowl All-Star team, and when it was time to pick from all the college offers in his mailbox, Donnell didn’t hesitate. He packed his bags and headed for Carolina where he was a part of a legendary defensive line. As a senior he and his teammates brought home a 6-0 ACC season, and were ranked 8th by the Associated Press after a 16-7 win over Texas in the Bluebonnet Bowl.
His motivation and determination made him an immediate starter after he was drafted by the Colts. He was an NFL All-Rookie, and he was a rock in his team’s defensive line until he retired in 1992.
While still with the Colts, Donnell was already thinking about his post-football life. He became an owner/operator of a number of McDonald’s restaurants, with a definite emphasis on the operator aspects of the job. During the football off-season he often arrived at a restaurant at 5 a.m. to make the biscuits and salads for the day, and he claims to be able to take apart and reassemble a McDonald’s milkshake machine with his eyes closed.
But his business career was still only in the first quarter. He sold his restaurants back to McDonald’s. In 1997 he switched to selling hotel rooms as president of Thompson Hospitality LLC. It wasn’t easy at first. For his first hotel he had to go to 22 banks. Once he got the financing he went on to develop a total of six hotels in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. His own management and construction companies built and managed three of the hotels.
Donnell’s companies have branched out, with additional construction projects, including the R.B. House Library at Carolina, and other projects at Fayetteville State University, Duke, Wachovia Bank, Bennett College, as well as a number of privately-owned estates in North Carolina.
Not content with just his own success, he has put his energy into helping other African-American entrepreneurs as chair of the National Association of Black Hotel Owners, Operators and Developers. The association is working to raise the profile of black professionals in the hotel business. Through his own business success, Donnell Thompson has become a mentor, imparting his knowledge and experience to those following him up the career ladder to executive positions within the hospitality industry.
He continues to be a strong supporter of his church, St. Joseph AME, and also his alma mater. He is a member of the Rams Club, the Chancellor’s Club, and the Board of Visitors.
And he enjoys keeping in touch with Carolina football, and it is enjoying him. Coach John Bunting ’72 has been delighted that Donnell returns to Carolina to share his story and experiences with the team. “Donnell,” the coach says, “is the epitome of what the Carolina football program is all about. He was an outstanding football player, leader and graduate. He went on to a lengthy, successful pro football career. When his playing days were over, he took advantage of his skills and degree and became a highly successful businessman. There is no better role model for a young aspiring football player today than Donnell Thompson.”
We second that endorsement today with the Harvey E. Beech Outstanding Alumni Award.