BY WENDY M. DODD | PHOTOS BY BOB THOMPSON, THOMPSON BRAND IMAGES
One thing leads to another…
Childhood Music Lessons Air Force Sergeant Europe Wife Photography Mentor Baby with Down Syndrome Anandi Speaking for United Way Giving Back creating Thompson Event Partners.
Bob Thompson’s life seemed compartmentalized for years, but every compartment served a purpose in preparing him to fuse those talents and experiences to create a truly unique business; Thompson Event Partners.
We often can’t understand why certain life experiences happen until years after the fact, and sometimes not even then. If we are able to look at our lives as a whole, it’s possible to see how each moment and experience has prepared us for the next, allowing each step we take to propel us toward living a life in which we can combine our passions, talents and resources. When we allow ourselves to combine our passions, talents and resources, we lead a life of fulfillment; one that is beneficial to others. And isn’t that what it’s all about? Just ask Bob Thompson.
Thompson has spent nearly 25 years perfecting his craft on the photography scene since his first professional job in 1993. His images are a perfect reflection of Bob’s true desire to connect with his clients on a personal level. His calm, welcoming demeanor can coax smiles from even the toughest of photo subjects, even inspiring his subjects with a new-found relationship with their own self-image.
A long time member of the Rotary Club of New Tampa and the Greater Wesley Chapel Chamber of Commerce, Thompson’s list of encouraging talents don’t stop at photography. An Emcee for over 10 years for Rotary events, both locally and nationally, he is also a standout community leader often donating his time behind the podium, mic and guitar for numerous local organizations.
Aside from his thriving events business, Bob is also a doting husband to Anandi and father to Buddy, their son. Bob’s outgoing personality is ever present in his personal life as he has enjoyed spending his free time supporting Buddy Baseball, Special Olympics and Easter Seals with his family.
Resident Magazine wanted to see just what drives Thompson’s limitless enthusiasm.
RM (Resident Magazine): Lets start with your personal life, your wife and son.
BT (Bob Thompson): Anandi, my wife of 28 years, owns WEllcome Om Yoga Studio, and is a partner in this new events business where she’s positioning herself to develop and deliver yoga and wellness programs, as well as training and development programs for events and conferences. She actually changed her name to Anandi last year when she was initiated formally into the yoga lineage she’s been practicing for 26 years by Yogi Amrit Desai, who gave her the name.
Our son, Eric, or Buddy, was born on August 22nd here in Tampa. We’d only been in Tampa four to five months, building our client base and expanding the company when he arrived four weeks early. The pregnancy had progressed without any problems, even being born a month early, he seemed to be doing great. The next day was when everything went downhill. Doctors informed us that Buddy might have Down syndrome and holes in his heart. Just days after we were home, he became severely jaundice and was readmitted to the ICU, a place we would frequent over the next 18 months. Until his heart was fixed he needed full time oxygen, feeding tube, and full-time monitoring for a malady of other health issues that can arise with Down syndrome.
It was a tough go, but we created a good routine. I was working as a musician many nights until around 2 in the morning typically, and I would handle a photo session here and there so I took the night shift of medications and feedings. Anandi would head off to work during the day. It was very rough for a while. Once his heart was fixed, 17 months later, he improved considerably and kept improving from that day forward. Today he is lean and muscular; he never gets sick and you’d never know any of that happened by looking at him today. Now he’s heading to college in the fall.
Eric’s Gift: A Book on the Discovery of Unconditional Love in the 47th Chromosome is a book that Anandi wrote about Buddy’s journey with Down Syndrome when it appeared he wasn’t going to make it.
Buddy ended up becoming a poster child for the United Way when he was about 4 years old. He was on billboards and posters all around the city, and United Way really stepped up and helped with a lot of the needs we had for Buddy. As a result of that, Anandi was doing speaking engagements all around town for the United Way, sharing her book along the way.
I’m often asked how I got started in dedicating so much of my life to serving our community. I was never really a person of service before we moved here. It was the help and compassion we received from so many, especially the United Way, when we needed anything for Buddy’s care. Their willingness to step up when we needed it most inspired me to give back.
RM: Tell us about the
community service aspect of your life.
BT: About 15 years ago when we opened our photography studio in Tampa, Thompson Studios, a friend suggested I go to a local Rotary meeting because it was full of community leaders, movers and shakers. So I attended the New Tampa Rotary and ended up joining to help get my business off the ground. It didn’t take me long to realize that’s not why you join Rotary. It took me some time to find my niche there, and I even left for a spell, but when I came back, I was all in. Rotary became my way to give back after receiving so much help with Buddy. Rotary was my direct access to community service. The more involved I got, the more I saw opportunities to help. When you’re a performer like me it’s a pretty easy connection on how you can contribute to your community and all of those events that help to raise the visibility of our community. Now it has become a habit that I’m very proud of, I love making events great for our community and ultimately helping people.
In one regard, it almost becomes a selfish activity because it makes me feel great to contribute. It’s about as win-win as you’ll ever find.
I also want to mention the Buddy aspect, and what this community has provided for him as he’s grown. He is an honorary Rotarian and he gets up at meetings and addresses the crowd, he also helps sing the last song of each set at my musical performances around the area. Having Buddy come up to sing at a public event… I can’t even tell you what that does for me. As a dad, the experience for my son to be on stage performing with me, that will get me every time. Then I watch the people and there is a look on their faces when we’re both doing our thing on stage. They understand who he is and everything he’s getting out of the experience and it brings the house down every time. I really want to thank the community for what they’ve provided to my son and my wife. It’s taken this community to raise Buddy into the man he is today. Him growing up as healthy as he has and about to head to college is not a predictable outcome for a young man with Down syndrome; it has everything to do with being raised in a supportive, encouraging and loving community.
RM: Tell us about your life as a creative professional.
BT: In 1991, my wife and I lived in Columbia, Maryland where I’d recently left the Air Force. I was stationed at National Security Agency (NSA) and then afterwards worked as a government contractor for a short time. We came to Tampa with big dreams of starting a new life, although when we rolled into town with our U-Haul, neither of us had jobs and we were expecting our first child.
In April ’93, I worked as a full time musician doing gigs five to six nights a week here in Tampa while building up my photography business. I had just finished a photography apprenticeship, but music was my main income until I was able to build a decent client base and get my photography business up and running. At this point, the majority of my professional time has been spent as a photographer, going on 25 years now. We are currently expanding our events business and I’m spending more time doing emcee and entertainment work.
RM: How did you transition from working as a government contractor in Maryland to opening your own photography business in Florida?
BT: You know, a little serendipity. When I was working in government, I worked at The Department of the Interior, Bureau of Mines. That’s fancy for saying that I calculated figures and produced a monthly report of the nation’s steel scrap supply. It wasn’t a bad job — okay, it was BORING! Although it was pretty good money and a good company to work for in downtown DC.
Then I took a self-improvement seminar while I was at the Bureau. One of the projects we did had certain criteria; to create enthusiasm while involving your community. I decided to take photographs of my co-workers at the Department of the Interior doing something they loved. The idea behind it was to create a gallery with the images to help us all get to know each other more intimately, and reveal something unique about each person that people didn’t know. As it turns out, that was my transition out of that industry. It was my first experience of actually organizing and executing photo shoots. I think I did about 20.
Another push in that direction was a follow-on seminar I did with someone I consider a mentor; he was a commercial photographer in Virginia and DC for 15 years. He asked me one day how serious I was about my passion for photography, I said, “try me!” So he did, offering me an apprenticeship for one hundred dollars a week. About the time I began working with this mentor is when we decided to move to Tampa, giving me four months to study up on everything I could related to photography.
RM: What within you helped make that decision?
BT: I’ve always wanted life to be fun, for better or for worse. I’d rather take a chance and have a little more fun. Becoming a photographer sounded like an adventure; it had everything I was looking for. The next thing you know, 25 years goes by and I can look back and say everything worked out okay.
I wouldn’t say it was the perfect way to transition into a new career, as soon-to-be parents we were unemployed in a new city, hundreds of miles away from our home. Our son was born with special needs, but thankfully we had many miracles along the way. We had some very compassionate people in the right places to help us at the right times.
RM: How did your passion for music come about?
BT: It all started when I was about 5 years old growing up in California, it was just my dad, Tom, my brother, Tom Jr. and I. An accordion salesman knocked on our door one day and I was mesmerized. I begged my father to buy me one. He couldn’t of course, but somehow he scraped enough together to get me lessons. To this day I don’t know how he did it, because we really didn’t have much.
After some time spent in accordion lessons, at the second studio I attended, I met a great teacher, Francine French. She’d played on the Lawrence Welk show and toured nationally as an accordion player with a trio. Before I knew it, she was moving into our house, and it turned out my dad had been dating my accordion teacher all along (laughs)! She put me in touch with some of her own mentors, and the training was intense but I was good at it. The issue was when I got into puberty; I’d already been very shy and pretty much afraid of everything, and I was very small. I was that kid most likely to be stuffed into a locker, and playing the accordion was no help, not to mention I was never going to get a girlfriend that way. So it was right around that age that I decided to transition from an accordion to a guitar. I played multiple instruments throughout high school, from the trombone to the baritone, the piano the drums.
As a senior in high school I did pick up the accordion again, and more recently have rediscovered it again. Playing instruments stays with you; it’s something you never quite leave behind.
RM: What was your dream job as a kid?
BT: I remember wanting to be a marine biologist or an airline pilot. As a kid I remember growing up on the beaches of southern California, I’d get lost by myself looking for sea anemones and crabs so I think that’s where the marine part came into play. An uncle I’d only met once or twice before was a pilot for United Airlines and I remember that being impactful as well.
Once I got to high school I was struggling quite a bit, I didn’t have a lot of aspirations. My dad and Francine had twin girls, and along with my brother and we moved up to Washington State when my dad was 38. Whidbey Island is in the Puget Sound, a long beautiful island with inlets and sounds, it’s amazing. We became a wilderness family. We built little log houses and lived off the land. That was the best thing that ever happened to me; it resonated with me. I excelled in school, played sports, took up music and even became class president. Nature is my church to this day, where I go to just be with it all. I didn’t know that about myself until we moved up there.
RM: What advice would you give to someone wanting to turn a hobby, such as photography, into a business?
BT: Learn the craft of photography first. These days it can seem deceivingly simple to be a photographer. Especially now that the cameras themselves are so capable. Someone who loves taking pictures can buy a $500 camera that can do anything, put up a website for $10 a month and they think they’re in business. Not to be too critical, but I think sometimes people don’t realize there is much to learn about photography and light; a craft to it. I was very lucky to have learned what I did from my mentor; he showed me how to approach photographing any person, place or thing in a way that reveals the authentic nature of that person, place or thing, perhaps the objective of photography itself, and if we’re really doing our jobs, in a new way not seen before.
To make money with it, it obviously requires an aptitude for business as well. I know quite a few good photographers that are not in business anymore because they just couldn’t manage that side of it. Then there is the ability to relate to people. When I look back over 25 years of clients, more often than not, that client becomes a friend, so really, I’m in the business of creating relationships. It’s not different than many fields; I know when I connect with a client on a personal level they’re more likely to stay my client. That has been one of the most rewarding things for me; serving the same clients year after year, connecting with people over time. My advice for people who want to connect with others? Make eye contact, pronounce their name correctly, take an interest in who they are, and mean it. Sincerity is important. The ability to connect with people authentically is just as or more important to the success of a photographer as are the f-stops and shutter speeds.
RM: In what ways do you perform?
BT: I’m a singer, guitar player, an emcee, speaker and I have also been a stand up comic. It is the most terrifying thing I have ever done. If you compare it to music, which I’ve been performing my whole life, you have a guitar, a stage and a microphone. And then you get into the song, which carries you along. Stand up comedy is you, a microphone and an audience and whatever words you say. There is nothing to do except talk. It’s easily the most vulnerable performance of my career. My wife signed me up for a comedy class as a birthday present. Once I knew how much it terrified me, I knew I needed to do it. I had no aspirations to create a job out of being a stand up comic; it was the experience I wanted and I knew it would be a huge step for me.
RM: Tell us what you’re up to these days.
BT: I’m expanding my Thompson Brand Images to Thompson Event Partners by combining the professional skills I’ve mastered over the years into one area of service. Music, comedy, and speaking engagements are incorporated with an event planner to help bring energy to events where typically the liveliness is a little low.
At each event we evaluate where we can infuse energy and life into the mix. I often begin events by leading the room in a song, if not humor. Maybe it’s appropriate to play a few tunes throughout our time there, get people up and dancing. We want to make our events enjoyable for everyone attending. We’ve all been at that one party, where the speaker is just dragging on and on, and you’re sitting there trying to stay awake. Our goal is to help you avoid that and keep the energy levels up for everyone involved.
I’ve learned to be uninhibited, more forward and vulnerable, and that really seems to be generating a great response from audiences. It’s gratifying to bring all of what I can to one arena, so to speak, and make my difference. Juggling my photography business with my music gigs and my emcee gigs and keeping up all the separate websites and social media had me going out of my mind. I’m excited to bring together these different tools that I have collected on my journey and let them fly in one context.
RM: Now that you’re able to merge all these passions together, do you feel more fulfillment?
BT: Absolutely. You know, as a kid, I never had that kind of confidence you’ll see with some of these 15 year-olds on America’s Got Talent. I was always scared that I would never be good enough. For me, what’s really fun now, is finally feeling free enough in my own being to let it fly 100%, every time without anything in the way. Now it’s fun and way more fulfilling. I can bring all of that forth at any given time and say, this is what I can do. I’ve played through that nervousness for all those years.
It took putting myself in those positions, leaning directly into the all of those gigs that stretched me – that fearful stuff. Having a wife that understands who I am right to my core, she could see that possibility for me even when I couldn’t. She reminds me even though I feel and even remark that I’m new as an emcee, that I was doing this back in my Air Force days in the mid 1980’s! I’ve been doing all of this my whole life, and I’m now turning it into something I can really work with.
My wife and I are at a pivotal point in life; our only son is heading off to college for four years. Anandi and I are about to be free to travel and have a full schedule of our own and we’re looking forward to enjoying that part of our lives again. We love the event business and will be incorporating that into our travel as well.
RM: What can people expect to see from your events business?
BT: To expand to include services way beyond what I offer myself. Anandi is becoming a big part of that; in her corporate career she often planned year-long events for 150 executives around the world. She is also a presenter and trainer. Part of our Thompson Event Planners will be to train and develop attendees in breakout sessions such as for strategic planning, how to be a public speaker or community leader, etc. We’re beginning to develop that content.
Between the two of us, along with other great people we have in our lives, we’ve built this core of very talented presenters that can really turn heads. This is a company aimed at enhancing the events we’re involved with and making them memorable.
RM: What is your favorite place you’ve ever traveled?
BT: You could just draw a big circle around Europe. My heart probably belongs to Germany though. We lived there for almost 5 years and that’s actually where my wife and I met when she was a Russian linguist and I was a German linguist in the Air Force. We traveled throughout Europe; I don’t think there was much we missed.
We’ve always said that if by some crazy serendipitous happening it was possible to go back to Germany we would, and I think that holds true to this day for both Anandi and I.
RM: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
BT: I guess what comes to mind is a philosophy my dad had; he always said his job was to open as many doors as possible for his kids. Experience as much as we possibly could, which was indeed great advice. It was then our job to go through those doors and find the one that worked best for us. In that regard, he gave me the freedom to do what I think is quite unconventional. I didn’t have a traditional upbringing; nothing in our lives had really been conventional. When high school was done and most of my classmates went on to college, that wasn’t what I had in mind. He supported that. I wanted to live life and he encouraged me to try everything.
RM: What regrets, if any, do you have?
BT: Sometimes I wish I could have been freer, sooner. I wonder if I could have been this free when I was 30 or 25, how might things have unfolded? I wouldn’t say that’s really a regret though. Everything has turned out, no matter how risky or foolish it seemed at the time. It worked out beautifully.
RM: If you could put up a billboard anywhere and have it say anything, what would it say?
BT: “Find your way to make a difference.”
Having photographed over 40,000 people over the span of his career, when asked of this amazing accomplishment Bob explains, “It’s simple. I love people and I love making beautiful pictures. The two go hand in hand quite nicely. I still get a little charge every time I look down on the screen and see a great image.”
If you’ve ever attended events in Wesley Chapel, New Tampa, or even downtown, chances are you’ve run into Bob Thompson a time or two. Whether he’s in the front of the room as emcee, presenting to a Chamber of Commerce breakfast, singing his heart out, or shooting a fortune 500 commercial event, Bob Thompson is on the move. And all of it seems to be making a difference. “Isn’t that the point?” he asks with a smile.