A look at the history of Thompson Distributing in Butte

From right, Jim and Margie Thompson stand with their sons Scott and Mark Thompson in front of an antique distribution truck Thursday morning at the former Safeway distribution center, at 3941 Wynne Ave. 

After operating as a family-owned business in Butte for over 40 years, Thompson Distributing Inc. has been sold to Eagle Beverage of Great Falls.

The company purchased Thompson Distributing Oct. 1, said Cathie Williamson, operations manager for Eagle, after being approached by Scott Thompson, who co-owned the Butte-based company with his wife Mary.

“It just seemed like a perfect time,” said Williamson noting that the acquisition will allow Eagle to expand its footprint in wine distribution.

Williamson said Eagle has taken on five out of seven employees that formerly worked for the Butte distribution company, including Scott Thompson’s son Ryan who will work in Butte as a site manager for Eagle. Of the employees who did not continue on with Eagle, one retired and the other moved out of state.

Thompson Distributing has focused mainly on wine and a lineup of non-alcoholic drinks in recent years.

The company was started around 1976 by Thompson’s parents, Jim and Margie Thompson, and began as a Coors distribution company.

Over the years, the company added Anheuser-Busch products to its lineup, along with wine, water, soda and other beverages. According to the Thompson family, for a time the company was among only a handful of distributors in the United States that had distribution rights for both breweries.

Jim and Margie moved to Butte from Great Falls to start Thompson Distributing. Before that, they owned a fresh and frozen food distributorship.

At the time, the Thompsons didn’t know anyone in Butte — which may seem surprising today, with the company being featured in countless holiday parades, known as a sponsor for summer festivals and a donor for this cause and the next. Thompson Distributing has also become synonymous with the giving spirit with its Thompson Distributing Citywide Food Drive, now known as the Thompson Family Food Drive.

In the early years of company operations, the local economy took a dark turn with the closure of the Butte mines in the 1980s.

But Jim and Margie were able to weather the storm.

“Our character,” said Margie, when asked how they managed to hold on to the business. “It was hard work.”

Jim agreed. “I think that was primarily it. You couldn’t really hire anybody because you weren’t bringing any money in, so you did it yourself.”

“And it wasn’t just our business, I mean, the whole town was suffering,” Margie said. “When they decided to flood those mines, I’ll never forget that day.”

Thompson and his brother Mark took over the company in 2005. They eventually sold their distribution rights for both Coors and Anheuser-Busch and started to focus on wine. Mark left the business in 2011.

Thompson and Mark will maintain ownership of the business park that was home to the distribution company. The facility, at 3941 Wynne Ave., was formerly a distribution center for Safeway.

Thompson and Mark purchased the 237,000-square-foot distribution center in 2007.

The move was a major investment for the brothers, as they were betting on being able to find tenants for the building, which today boasts around 20 renters, including Eagle Beverage, which is renting out space for vehicle storage, and another Thompson business called SMT Storage. The two brothers plan to add 50 more units to the storage business.

“Honestly it was a calculated deal, so I wasn’t terribly nervous,” said Mark when asked if purchasing the distribution center felt like a gamble.

Thompson and Mark made substantial improvements to the then beleaguered building over the years, initially hauling away 23 dumpsters of debris, replacing 40 overhead doors, applying 1,200 gallons of paint and performing a major office overhaul.

“When we picked it up, we invested a lot of money into it and continue to,” said Mark.

As for the sale to Eagle Beverage, Thompson said he and his wife decided to sell the company because they did not wish to grow the business or consolidate with another distributor — moves that may have been necessary in order to compete with large distributors.

“I’ll definitely miss the customers and I’ll miss our employees for certain,” said Thompson, when asked what he’ll miss most about owning the company.

He added that he feels as though he’s leaving his former employees and customers in good hands and that Eagle is a “fantastic addition” to the Butte business community.

Eagle Beverage has been distributing in Montana for over 80 years. The company has over 80 employees and distributes beer, wine, and other beverages to locations throughout Montana.

Former Thompson customers can now place their wine orders with Eagle Beverage. Williamson said Eagle is working with a majority of Thompson’s former customers and is in the process of getting chains that did business with the Butte Company on board. She added that customers will have access to all the same wines that were available under Thompson.

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Business Reporter

Business Reporter for The Montana Standard.

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