Long Journey Home

How one woman’s passion for her Mexican heritage and traditions of
ancient coppersmithing is taking the home design world by storm

By Jim Dodson     Photographs by John Koob Gessner

On a warm Saturday afternoon not long ago, the family of Alejandra Thompson and North Carolina furniture industry icon Fred Starr gathered at a nondescript warehouse in Greensboro to show visitors their company’s latest creation: a stunning Fireclay farmhouse kitchen sink made by artisans in Turkey.

In one section of the warehouse, tractor trailers were being loaded with sinks bound for more than 3,000 signature home stores, and finer kitchen and bath retailers across the country. 

In another corner, a staff craftsman for Thompson Traders was putting the finishing touches on a spectacular custom kitchen display that was headed for a home show in Atlanta called Haven, an elite showcase of innovative products from key “influencers” in the booming home-design market. Within weeks, several thousand more branded Sinkology farmhouse sinks will be shipped out to thousands of retail outlets that have grown to admire — and desire — the history-steeped products of Thompson Traders.

These are busy days for a quiet little company born in the Triad. It is the brainchild of Alex Thompson, as she prefers to be known to many friends and associates across the region.

“There’s no mystery these sinks have captured the imagination of customers,” observes Fred Starr, who joined Thompson Traders in 2008 as chairman/CEO and has overseen the company’s extraordinary growth arc during the past decade. Starr knows a thing or two about commercial success, having guided Thomasville Furniture Industries to the top of the furniture world during his decades as the CEO of the famous furniture company. “These sinks are really beautiful works of art that speak to the soul, unlike anything the market has seen up till now.”

“We all play a role in the company’s success,” explains Clifford Thompson, the pleasant 38-year-old president of Thompson Traders and eldest son of Alex and Cliff Thompson. “But it’s really Mom who is the heart and soul of this operation. Without her, none of this ever would have happened.”

“Without question,” agrees Cliff senior, a former Volvo executive and computer engineer who has served multiple roles, from chief financial officer to home-show construction boss. “Alex is the key.”

“That’s the truth. She’s the one,” adds younger son, J.J., the firm’s executive vice president of operations who travels the world making deals and finding artisans who can meet the company’s rigid standards of production quality.

With this, all eyes fall on Thompson Traders’ diminutive founder and spiritual muse, an elegant woman draped in white who looks decades younger than her 60-something years.

Alex Thompson blushes, and waves away the compliments. “No, please, this is a family story!” she says. “I’m so honored that people seem to love our sinks. We make them to celebrate family and tradition. It’s almost like a miracle.”

It all started out just 15 years ago with Alex Thompson’s simple hunch that the spirit of her Mexican ancestry and girlhood memories might translate into a nice little family business. Growing up among skilled artisans in the ancient mountains west of Mexico City helped her realize that even seemingly mundane objects like sinks and tubs became magical when they were hand-crafted from hammered copper and other natural elements. That realization — and her business acumen — have made Greensboro-based Thompson Traders into something of an industry darling and a bespoke leader in kitchen and bath innovation.

Divinely inspired or not, the appeal of their soulful sinks and ever-expanding line of products lies in meticulous Old World workmanship and museum-like designs that draw inspiration from classical artistry and one of the planet’s oldest trades — the art of coppersmithing.

Yet undergirding their success, as every Thompson family member takes pains to point out, is the satisfaction that their quiet, homegrown company keeps roughly 750 artisans and coppersmiths in nine different countries at work and a Triad staff of 30 workers fully employed.

“That gives me great comfort to know, and a strong sense of responsibility to their families,” Alex Thompson says, as the tour of the warehouse winds down. “Since I was a little girl, you see, I always dreamed of creating a business people would love. For me, this has been like a magical journey of faith and family — a love story from the beginning.”

She was the youngest of 14 children in an old Colonial town called Patzcuaro, set in the ancient hills west of Mexico City where the Day of the Dead was first celebrated and local artisans and native Tarascan Indians made beautiful things for centuries

Alex’s father, Rafael, was a self-made man who rebuilt the family’s fortune by making and selling soap at age 14 after his father lost everything in the Depression. He eventually rebuilt the family fortune and would go on to buy four ranches and sugar refinery, and become Patzcuaro’s mayor. “My father was the hardest-working man I ever knew,” Alex remembers. “Such a good man. I remember how he cared for the workers bringing sugar cane to his refinery. It seemed like a paradise to me.” She describes her parents as “loving but very tradition-minded,” their house always full of people — aunts and uncles, siblings, cousins. “Every Sunday there was always a big dinner and all kinds of people came to be part of it.”

The year she was 11, a young American named Clifford Thompson showed up for Sunday dinner. The quiet 13-year-old from Illinois was staying with her uncle. His daddy was a celebrated organic chemist who frequently visited the region. Young Cliff had been sent down to scour the villages around the lake for antique bowls for his mother’s collection.

“I see this young lady coming up the stairs — she was dressed in a pin-striped sailor suit with a white bow. I remember telling myself that I was going to marry her some day. This will be my wife,” Cliff remembers.

He spoke little or no Spanish; Alejandra spoke no English.

“I thought he was very interesting,” she remembers. “And maybe we could be friends. Patzcuaro was a wonderful place to grow up but even then I dreamed of seeing a much bigger world.”

At 16, during a return trip with his family, Cliff actually proposed to the young girl who stole his heart.

“I thought he was joking,” she recalls with a laugh.

“I really wasn’t,” he says, smiling, half a century later.

They followed up with letters and even a few phone calls.

Soon Alex, 17, was off to college in Guadalajara, where she studied psychology and resided in a house with other female students and a proper housemother guarding their virtue.

One afternoon out of the blue, Cliff Thompson showed up bearing 100 roses. He asked for Alex’s hand a second time.

“I was dating other boys. But our housemother told me that Cliff was the one for me,” she recalls. “I don’t know how she knew this. We were so unlike and hardly understood each other’s language.” But, she says, there was a connection, something spiritual: “Something I already loved about him. He was so smart, as unconventional as I was, a dreamer too. I could see he had a very good heart, a glimpse of his soul.”

Two years later, however, her pretty head was turned by another young man from a very good Mexican family. “He had everything, good looks, a wealthy background and plenty of charm — maybe too much,” she laughs. “So we got engaged. My parents were very happy.”

A month before the wedding, though, Alex began to have doubts. Her father drove her to meet with her fiancé’s family. “I left a dinner party and told my sister that I could not get married,” Alex recalls. “She was horrified. Such scandal!” There were already gifts piling up and her photograph had appeared in the newspaper. “You cannot imagine my parent’s reaction when I told them. Luckily, my sister’s husband — the one who hosted Cliff when we first met — told me, ‘Alex, if you have any doubt, you cannot get married.’”

It took months for the pains to recede.

During this time, Alex wrote letters to Cliff — by now a gifted student at Southern Cal, heading for a career in computer technology — but never heard back from him. She began to date other boys, almost giving up on her American suitor.

“But then comes a letter that tells me he wants to see me and is coming to Mexico during a holy week and needs to talk with me, am I available?”

“Romantic, huh?” Cliff injects with a chuckle.

He arrived in Patzcuaro, she canceled her plans. He drives her up into the hills where there is a nice view of the town’s famous namesake lake.

“OK,” said Cliff. “I came to see if you want to marry me. If not, I plan to take a job in Switzerland and will never come back. This is the last time I will ask.”

They’d never even held hands.

“When my parents returned, I tell them I have a nice surprise — I am going to marry Clifford Thompson. Papi, my father, is very calm. He simply asked me if I knew what I was doing. I told him that I did, that I truly loved Clifford. We were soul mates.  My mother was not so happy.”

Two months later, in November 1974, they were married in a civil ceremony at her parents’ house in Patzcuaro.

The next January, they held a much larger wedding at the town’s basilica, filled with flowers and lit by 500 candles. Alex was late for the service because her Papi was in the hospital and she’d stopped to receive his blessing. He sang her a song about wanting to be remembered by his grandchildren. “I was late and my eye were swollen from crying but it was such a beautiful service. The music was ‘The Impossible Dream.’ Everyone cried!”

That same week, she received her green card and the couple headed for snowy Chicago, where Cliff had a good job as a computer programmer for Northern Trust.

As their plane took off, Alex Thompson could not imagine the life she was flying toward.

As it happened, Chicago was in the grip of its snowiest winters in memory. “But guess what?” Alex teases. “I loved it! I’d never seen real snow. I loved everything about Chicago, too — the people, the crowded stores, most of all the wonderful museums! It was a new paradise.”

While Cliff worked, Alex went sledding and visited museums. On weekends the couple went hiking, attended theaters and regularly visited Cliff’s family home on a lake in Oak Brook. “They were such wonderful, brilliant people,” she remembers. “They were so welcoming and kind to me. I loved being with them. I loved Chicago and could have stayed there forever.”

In 1984, however, Cliff Thompson was offered a job with Volvo Truck Division headquartered in Greensboro. By then parents of three busy toddlers — two boys and a daughter, with a second daughter soon to be born in Greensboro — the couple purchased a pretty redwood house set back in the forest trees off Anson Road in Sedgefield.

“Quite honestly, I was anxious about what life in the South would be like,” Alex says. “Greensboro was a beautiful but small city and I feared I might not be welcome or happy here” she says. But then something wonderful happened. “One of the neighbors invited me to lunch at the country club and I met all these women who were so kind and helpful. They loved the things I loved — food, family, entertaining. They became my community, my closest friends and even helped raise my children!”

It wasn’t long in this new community of friends before she met a talented English-born interior decorator named Teresa Palmer. About this same time, within six weeks of each other, Alex’s mother and father both passed away. “I was so sad. But walking with Teresa every morning helped me get through this lonely time. I knew I needed something to do with my life beyond the children, so I said, ‘Teresa, why don’t we do something together, create a little business. So we did.”

Using Palmer’s exquisite English eye for colors and luxurious fabrics and Alex’s Mexican natural gift for design, they partnered in a custom decorating business, creating unique holiday wreaths, live fir trees, papier mâché figures and banners. They announced a three-day holiday neighborhood sale that sold out of goods in two, generating $8,000 profit.

By the end of the decade, their “little business” called Designs by Palmer and Thompson was employing 36 young matrons in High Point, producing stunning hand-made decorations for everyone from the High Point Furniture Market to Tiffany’s of New York. When a call came from the Clinton White House, they also produced decorations for its Easter Egg Roll and Christmas extravaganza; ditto Saks Fifth Avenue, dozens of famous hotels, castles in Scotland and even several Middle Eastern potentates.

In 2001, due to health issues in both their families, Alex and Teresa decided to simply close down their business.

“It had been a wonderful 10 years but I felt like I’d lost a child,” Alex says. “We were so good together. I wondered what I would do next. I prayed on this every day.”

The answer came the next year, in 2002, when eldest son Cliff graduated from Purdue University with a degree in business. “We were at the ceremony when mom suggested that we do something together, start a little business of our own,” he remembers. “I loved the idea because it involved going back to Mexico, where my brothers and sisters and I often went for long holiday visits.” 

The old towns and villages around Patzcuaro were home to a deep heritage of local craftsmanship, famous for black pottery artists, leather makers, antiquities and, especially, coppersmiths who practiced the ancient art of their ancestors.

On their next trip to Mexico, mother and son split up to search out possible items to import. “My idea was a buy-sell business of handmade crafts and  cool things like I used to bring back when I was a kid and sell door-to-door  in Sedgefield without my parents’ knowledge,” explains young Cliff with a laugh. “My mom’s idea was even cooler.”

Her heritage was calling.

Alex brought home a trio of beautifully wrought hammered copper sinks. With the elder Cliff serving as the fledgling company’s banker, Team Thompson set off for the Atlanta International Gift and Home Furnishings Market with high hopes of making a splash, followed by the High Point furniture market.

They sold absolutely nothing.

Young Cliff, who by then had married a Mexican woman named Martha whom he’d met in his mama’s hometown, decided to take a job working for Wells Fargo in Atlanta, but was happy to help Alex and his sister Samantha take their copper sinks back to Atlanta for the annual gift show.

The unique handmade sinks attracted interest but yielded no sales. Then a colleague of Cliff’s from the bank suggested that they were probably attending the wrong show — they needed to take their sinks to the annual national builders show in Las Vegas.

As they set up their 10-foot by 10-foot board foam booth in Vegas, displaying nine of their distinctive sinks, the elder Cliff calmly broke the bad news: “This is it. The last show we do. We either make it as a business or we quit.”

Like manna from heaven, Alex and Samantha were swarmed by potential customers, purchasers from major companies like The Home Depot, Lowe’s, Menards and scores of smaller home and bath retailers. They became, in fact, the talk of the show. A big fellow from Home Depot handed Alex his card and told her to call if she was interested in visiting the company headquarters in Atlanta.

Back home, on a Sunday, she phoned Mr. Home Depot. He remembered her from Las Vegas — invited her to come for a visit next Tuesday at 9 o’clock.

A few days later, Alex and Samantha were on their way to Home Depot’s headquarters campus with half a dozen copper sinks and company cards Cliff  hurriedly printed up himself. “We had no literature, no brochures or product information — just a dozen copper sinks in the basement,” he quips.

Alex and Samantha were shown to a large boardroom with one of their sinks in tow.

“A dozen polite men came in and sat around the table. “I told them about my family and the heritage of coppersmithing in my part of Mexico.” She remembers them looking so serious but interested. “Eventually they asked me why I thought Home Depot customers would like our unusual copper sinks?”

The answer was obvious to Alex Thompson.

“Because they are so beautiful.”

They agreed, “We’d like to put your sinks in 58 of our signature stores around the country. Would that be OK with you?”

“All I could think about was my family and artists back in Mexico,” Alex remembers. “This was like an answered prayer, a dream come true.”

So was the entry of legendary furniture man Fred Starr, whose wife Sue  suggested her husband offer his expertise to the Thompsons as their company grew and experienced growing pains complicated by the Great Recession of 2008. By that point, the Thompsons had invested every penny they had into their company to try to keep up with growing demand and an expanding workforce of artisans in places like Mexico, Turkey, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, India, Poland and Dubai.

Son J.J., who was in charge of making deals and assuring quality in these faraway factories, once had to convince their factory partners in India to ship a load of finished sinks despite an outstanding bill of half a million dollars.  “We didn’t have the money in the bank yet, but they agreed to ship anyway,” J.J. remembers.  “That’s the definition of faith, the kind of people we work with.” Which is why he entrusted a former classmate, Chris DeVillens, to run the comapany’s Siakology division.

“Fred joining us was a godsend,” adds the elder Cliff. “He brought a world of knowledge about contacts, logistics and marketing that we sorely needed. Also, at a time when we needed financing to keep up with production, his name opened doors with the banks.”

“I had many sleepless nights,” allows the little woman who dreamed up a company and threw her heart and soul into it — including the kitchen sink. “But in my heart I knew it would all work out. If you truly believe in something and you pray for guidance, good things happen.”

A friend from Winston-Salem, in fact, taught her a special simple prayer called the Prayer of Jabez, from the Book of Chronicles, which Alex believes “produces many miracles in lives, including our family.”

Oh, Lord, that you would bless me, indeed

And expand my territory,

And that your hand would guide me

And keep me from evil

Every day since, several times a day, Alex Thompson prays the Prayer of Jabez. “I think it means you put everything you have into the hands of God, asking Him to help you make a difference in people’s lives. The success of our company, I truly believe, is proof of the prayer’s life-affirming power.”

Her children and grandchildren, she notes, also say the prayer.

Twenty years ago this winter, another life-affirming connection was made when Alex was invited by Ann Hummel, co-founder of the Piedmont Chapter of Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF), to apply her decorating genius to the organization’s annual fundraising gala, then in its second year. At that time, Alex was helping decorate the Greensboro Ballet’s annual production of The Nutcracker, in which her youngest daughter, aka “Little Alex,” danced.

At 15, Little Alex was diagnosed with T1D, a disease that scarcely slowed her down but prompted a new chapter in the amazing journey of both daughter and her visionary mother.

Little Alex would go on to become a Morehead Scholar finalist but choose to attend Emory University. Today, at 33, she’s a mother and top executive for Chanel based in New York, as passionate and beautiful as her mom.

To nobody’s surprise, Alex and Cliff took on the job of designing and engineering the JDRF’s annual gala, alternately staged in Winston-Salem and Greensboro every January, an artistic feat that has dazzled gala guests and helped raise record amounts of money for juvenile diabetes research and treatment for 18 straight years.

One evening last summer, as Cliff and Alex entertained dinner guests at their  beautiful art-filled home on Anson Road, Alex revealed that the couple was already into the deep planning stages for the 20th anniversary gala, to be held January in the ballroom at the Sheraton Greensboro at Four Seasons. “We always want it to be a magical, big surprise — the most ambitious and beautiful thing we’ve ever done,” she said at the time.

Besides, her mind that evening was in her romantic past. After serving her home-cooked gourmet Mexican meal (and some very fine tequila brought back from Patzcuaro), Alex showed her guests through a house filled with stunning artifacts from their world travels to meet the artisans who make their Old World sinks: A 6-foot carved crucifix from Mexico, a pair of ancient carved teak doors from India, hand-carved statues and a remarkable table containing scores of tiny objects, and gifts from strangers along foreign paths and roads.

As the evening ended, Alex reflected on the importance of the objects. “These little things are my favorite, sacred proof that I finally got to see a much wider world,” she mused, standing by her ancient front door, forever open.  h

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