ALUMNI SPOTLIGHT: Mr. Michael Thompson '95 - Finding your tailwind

By Noell Barnidge
Mr. Michael Thompson, Benedictine Military School Class of 1995, was the commencement speaker for the graduation ceremony for the BC Class of 2022 on May 15 at the Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist. 

Mr. Thompson serves as a co-founding member of Reinvent Capital with business partner Mr. Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn. Reinvent Capital is currently invested in several companies, including Joby Aviation, an electrical aviation rideshare company; Aurora, the first autonomous vehicle company to go public; and SpaceX, a provider of space transportation services.

Mr. Thompson previously was co-founder, managing member, and portfolio manager for BHR Capital, which managed as much as $1.9 billion of special situations funds from 2009-16. Mr. Thompson played an active role in several of BHR Capital's portfolio companies, developing operating and financing strategies alongside management. While managing BHR Capital, Mr. Thompson was responsible for all portfolio construction, security selection, and risk management activities, and oversaw the firm's investment team. He also led several investments in which BHR Capital took active protagonist roles. Additionally, since the early 2010s, he has made dozens of private investments. He has experience as a board member and regularly advises companies on business and financial matters.

After graduating from Benedictine Military School, Mr. Thompson attended the University of Georgia. He graduated magna cum laude with a BBA in International Finance from the Honors Program, where he received Alumni, Governor's, and Hope Scholarships.

Mr. Thompson, his wife, Rachel, and their son, William, live of Fisher Island in Miami, Fla.

The following is an interview with Mr. Thompson:

As the co-founder of Reinvent Capital, you are partnering with innovative leaders who are changing the world. Would you mind sharing about some of these projects?

“We started Reinvent five years ago. It was me, Reid Hoffman, who is best known as the founder of LinkedIn, and Mark Pincus, who is best known as the founder of Zynga, the gaming company. The basic theme to this, as the name would suggest, was we believe that there are going to be transformative technologies over the next several decades that can really reinvent the way a lot of industries conduct business, and the way that people can move throughout the world. There are other companies that fall into that category. One is called Convoy, a truckload brokerage company, the largest one in the country. We’re also invested in this company called Nimble AI, which is pioneering automated warehouses, which is essentially the marriage of advanced robotic technology and AI (artificial intelligence). We’ve been longtime investors in SpaceX, both personally and as a fund. That’s another investment we have. That’s just like a little flavor of the portfolio. In addition to that, we did a couple of SPACs (Special Purpose Acquisition Company) last year. One is Aurora. You’re now to the point where it’s about to become reality. They have these vehicles, currently as we’re speaking right now, you have Volvo and Packard trucks rolling down the highway between Dallas and Houston. For now, they have a safety driver, but the machine is doing most of the driving and the safety driver guy is just kind of sitting there. I’ve actually ridden in one and it’s amazing because it can do all of the things that you would need to do to move freight down the highway from one hub to the other. For example, it can do lane changes. It can do on-ramp, off-ramp. One of the off-ramps we got off, one had a four-way stop which, as you can imagine, is a relatively complex problem for a machine to navigate. It was able to do it easily. If everything continues as planned, and we think it will, they’re going to have these trucks going down these highways toward the end of next year, 2023, with no one in them. It’s much closer to reality than people might realize. We believe this is, by far and away, the best independent team in the market. And that’s kind of the theme on these types on things when we invest in them. Joby (Aviation), which is the other SPAC that we did, is very similar. This company is leaps and bounds ahead of the competition by our estimates. We believed that from the beginning and that continues to be the case.”

Joby Aviation has been described as “Tesla meets Uber in the air.” We’ve always dreamed of the flying car, so when do you expect this to go to market?

“If things continue to go as they’re going, and as they’re planned, this vehicle will be certified by the FAA, it’s either the end of next year or the beginning of 2024. And if we’re correct, this will be the first vehicle of its type, called an eVTOL, electric vertical takeoff and landing, this will be the first vehicle of its type to have FAA certification, which we think will put them in an amazingly powerful position. The idea is not only to design and manufacture these things but also to run the service itself. This is a comment that Reid has made, ‘This is basically Tesla meets Uber in the sky.’ The use case is moving people from dense-population areas to other dense-population areas. The obvious places where this could be used right out of the gate in ’24 would be a place like Los Angeles, where the politics can be a little tricky, or a place like here in Miami, where the politics are actually extremely conducive. I’ve met with (Gov. Ron) DeSantis. I’ve met with Mayor (Francis) Suarez, and Mayor Suarez is like, ‘The first city has to be Miami. We’ll roll out the red carpet, etc., etc., etc.’ The next big event on the calendar will be October of this year. They’re going to do the Elevate conference, because they bought Uber Elevate, and they’re going to do the Elevate conference in New York City, and they’re going to showcase the vehicle and have a bunch of people talk. I think it’s going to go really well."

What lessons did you learn at BC that have guided you in your life and career?

“I got good grades. I don’t think I made a ‘B’ while I was there. I think the first and foremost thing is, while you’re in high school, you don’t really have a lot of choice. It’s kind of hard to drop out of high school. You can drop out of college, like I said in the speech, but my simple method back then was, the only real job I have right now is to get good grades and so that’s what I did. And that’s probably the most important lesson. If you make it a broader lesson, it’s something like you understand the circumstance you’re in. You understand what the ultimate goal is, and the best way to achieve the ultimate goal is to develop systems that will make that goal possible. And the systems, quite frankly and quite literally and quite simply were knowing how to study, knowing how to write, knowing how to speak in public, all the things you need to do to get good grades. We also had fun. We played sports and all that kind of stuff. But I’d say the most important thing that you learn in high school is establishing what it is you’re there to do and then having a system to achieve whatever the goals are.”

What is your favorite memory of Benedictine?

“We had a lot of fun back then. The world was quite different. My parents’ house, and these were back in the days before cell phones, back then, when you were a high school kid, you have a midnight curfew or whatever you had, and you would just kind of go out and do high school kid stuff but you would need kind of a staging area. Now it’s pretty easy to coordinate. You just text people and say let’s meet here at such-and-such time. We didn’t really have that. Basically, my parents’ house became the de-facto staging area for my class and the class ahead of me. It was mostly BC kids and St. Vincent’s kids and (Savannah) Country Day kids. We had a lot of good times. I remember watching the O.J. (Simpson) Bronco chase, all that kind of stuff. We had a lot of good times just hanging out at the house before you would go do something that night. And then in terms of school, some of the best times we had were in that 15, 20 minutes between finishing lunch and going to your next class. You would go hang out on the plaza and shoot the breeze. We were not as good as the team is now, but we were deep into football my junior and senior years. We made the playoffs both years. The highlight of the football stuff, I think anyone will agree, was the Savannah High game. That was pretty awesome. I played defensive back. I started most of the games as a junior. I started all of the games as a senior. I think I was some kind of all-city honorable mention or something. It was great. The whole thing was great. (Tommy) Cannon could be kind of a difficult guy but, for the most part, I think he liked me. As I said in the speech, he did put me on probation. My final five points was a Saturday I got from Sergeant Major Reichert for ‘speeding’ in the parking lot. He was like a traffic cop for the parking lot. I was only going like 15 miles an hour and I was like ‘Dude, are you kidding me? Are you really going to give me a Saturday for this?’ But those were all great memories.”

You’ve returned to BC to visit and have attended BC football games over the years. What keeps you connected to BC?

“It started a few years ago with (Josh) Mallard. We were living in California back then. Mallard is telling me, ‘The football team has gotten, like, really, really good.’ We were in town (Savannah) to see my parents and he was like, ‘You want to go to a game? We can stand on the sideline.’ And I was like ‘Sure. That’s cool.’ That’s kind of what started it. Then, I guess it was last year, there was some thing with the coach (Danny Britt) at Marty Hogan’s restaurant, Ruth’s Chris, and I met him and some of those guys. I got to know those guys and we’ve always had kind of a family tradition about Pinkie’s because we would go to St. John’s on Christmas Eve and we would always stop there and grab a drink to go. When we got married in 2020, through Mallard, we got Marty to let us take over Pinkie’s for an hour or so, which I don’t think they’ve ever done before, frankly. He had to go and tell all the regulars to take a hike. So, all that kind of combined, and then Greg (Markiton ’92) and Fr. Frank (Ziemkiewicz, O.S.B.) walked me through the school in December. Some of it still looks the same but there’s a lot of really, really, good additions. It’s the same as when I went there, in some ways, but it’s definitely new and improved in a bunch of ways.”

What does the BC brotherhood mean to you?

”I’m still friendly with several of the guys that I grew up with. At an event the other night (before BC’s May 15 graduation ceremony) with (BJ) Ganem, it was a bunch of guys that I hadn’t seen since high school like Ashley Herrington, Steve Downing, John Haslam, a bunch of people I hadn’t seen in forever. BJ (Ganem) was kind of the link because I found out a number of years ago that BJ had his foot blown off in Iraq and he was doing all this Wounded Warrior stuff, and he had this thing with NFL players and Wounded Warriors, and I thought that was all really cool. I was always really good buddies with BJ in high school and we just kind of lost touch over the years. And so we got reconnected and now he’s working on this new project. He’s asked me to help him out with it because he thought it would be useful. He and I were talking not too long ago, and I told him I was doing this graduation speech and he said, ‘I tell you what, I’ll fly to Savannah and join you.’ I figured that I would recognize him during the speech because whatever I’ve done has been maybe interesting but what he’s done has is really, really, really, cool. And my guess was that maybe all of these kids had no idea about it. Not everyone is going to be interested in going down a path like the one I’ve been on. Some people might be more interested in the kind of stuff BJ’s done. And so I figured he’s a relatively high-profile guy that came from the school so that’s why I brought it up. George Bush has painted his picture a couple of times. He was on ‘Letterman.’ He’s been on a bunch of these talk shows. I don’t know if you’ve watched it on YouTube but he does a great job and it’s a really good cause, obviously. You go over somewhere to, like, a really boring place like Iraq and get your foot blown off and come back and have a really positive attitude and impact, it’s pretty cool.”

If you could write a letter to Michael Thompson, the senior at BC in 1995, what advice would you give the 18-year-old version of you?

”Frankly, it’s my (graduation) speech. Because that’s exactly how I wrote it. My thought process for this speech was I’ve seen these speeches before and they tend to be some kind of combination of nostalgic stories. Some people try to be funny. And a lot of advice. And I just kind of thought that was boring. I thought that wasn’t very useful. And so I thought to myself, ‘What do I wish someone had told me when I was 18?’ And so the first thing I tried to do, because I remember being 18. When you’re 18, you don’t have any money or anything, unless your parents gave you something. So you don’t have any real money and you probably don’t have any power or anything else. The first thing I tried to do is say, ‘Look, you guys have a tremendous amount of power and tremendous assets because you have this big world that we think is about to radically evolve, and you’re only 18 years old.’ The statement that I made in the speech is true. We were at dinner the other night with Carl Icahn, for his 86th birthday, and Carl is probably worth $20 billion dollars. His comment was, ‘I’d give $19 billion to be 30 years younger.’ And I said to my friend sitting next to me at the dinner, ‘Well, (shoot), that’ still 56.’ My point is, that got me thinking that all these people that have had success in their life, in the blink of an eye, would trade places with an 18-year-old who has nothing. The point of the opening was to say, ‘Look, you guys have a lot of assets and a lot of power. What do you do with it?’ Rather than give a bunch of advice, I thought I’ll just tell them some of the stuff we’re doing and why we’re doing it. And I’ll also make it clear that just because I’m saying it doesn’t mean it’s right. You’ve got to keep an open mind and all these other things, especially in this environment that we’re in right now, which is in some ways reminiscent of the early 2000s, when the tech bubble blew up. It’s really easy, when all these things that were hyped start blowing up, it’s really easy to say, ‘Oh, this is b.s. Let’s go do something else.’ By the way, sometimes that’s the right answer. But many times, it’s exactly the time when you should start focusing on it.”

Please CLICK HERE to read Mr. Thompson's commencement speech.