Robert L. (“Bob”) Thomson, noted Iowa businessman and philanthropist, passed away quietly in Minneapolis Friday evening, September 15, 2023, after a brief illness. He was 97.
A cautious businessman but an insightful business innovator, Thomson late in life turned a small, struggling chain of Ben Franklin stores into Iowa’s largest collection of Subway restaurants, only to pivot once again in his 80’s into development of Pancheros Mexican Grills in the Minneapolis market. He was working on details for the opening of his eighth Pancheros location when he passed away.
Robert Lee Thomson was born on March 27, 1926, in Winona, Minnesota, to Robert Milton and Palma Silvia Thomson. His father was a sales representative for Standard Paint & Varnish (later Valspar); his mother, a homemaker, later became regionally famous for her expertise in rose cultivation. Thomson graduated high school in 1944 and immediately joined the United States Navy. He was selected for the V-12 Navy College Training Program, an effort to supplement the number of commissioned officers available to the Navy during World War II. He was enrolled in mathematics at the University of Idaho, Moscow, Idaho, when the war ended and he was discharged.
Thomson completed his studies at the University of Minnesota, receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree in Business Administration. He was the first person in his family to receive a college degree. While at Minnesota, Thomson was a member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, an avid bridge player and chairman of the Minnesota Students for Stassen group. A lifelong classical music fan, he later in life recalled a vivid episode when he volunteered to help on a campus concert series. At one point in his volunteer service, he was recruited to drive several famous performers from New York’s Metropolitan Opera to a benefit in their honor at a mansion adjacent to Lake Harriet in Minneapolis. Unfamiliar with the tangle of streets surrounding the lake, he circled the lake several times, enduring increasingly profane — if incomprehensible — exhortations in German from his passengers. Undaunted, he later sold subscriptions on commission for the Met’s traveling troupe’s Midwest tours.
After graduation, Thomson took a post as executive director of the Chamber of Commerce in Jefferson, Iowa. In 1953, he took a similar post in Charles City. While at a municipal band concert in Central Park, he was introduced to Janan McQuillen, who owned a children’s wear store on Main Street. They were married in 1954.
On August 27, 1958 (the day Molly, the third of his four children, was born), he purchased the Charles City Ben Franklin Store from Al Roberts. Previously named “Christie’s Variety” but converted to the Ben Franklin brand, the store was located at 121 North Main Street, south of Clark Street, in Charles City. In subsequent years, Thomson purchased the Ben Franklin franchise operations in Clear Lake, Cresco, Osage and Spirit Lake, Iowa. In the early 1960s, Thomson and another Ben Franklin owner, Sam Walton of Arkansas, travelled to Ben Franklin headquarters in Chicago to discuss Walton’s ideas for changes to the traditional Ben Franklin business model. In 1965, Thomson and Ben Franklin leadership opted to stay with the traditional Ben Franklin individual franchise structure, while Walton converted his Ben Franklin stores to the new Walmart model.
Although Thomson elected to remain a Ben Franklin franchisee, he did so while making a few innovations of his own. Along with Roberts, by then a successful women’s clothing merchant, Thomson pioneered the use of tally sheets, later computers, to enable real-time monitoring of retail store inventory, a practice later adopted nearly universally in American retail. Thomson used the method with particular success when he launched “Thread Shed” retail clothing stores in Clear Lake, Spirit Lake, Osage and Charles City.
In 1962, in association with Al Allen, his good friend from Clear Lake, Thomson opened Allen Travel Agency in the rear of 220 North Main, his wife’s clothing store. The travel agency, which sold airline, rail, and ship tickets and travel packages, was one of first businesses of its kind in Iowa, apart from Mr. Allen’s operation in Clear Lake. It subsequently moved offices to the Norlin Hotel on Clark Street (just west of the building currently housing Kloberdanz Insurance), then to South Grand Avenue, then to the Cedar Mall. As a travel agent, Thomson (often with his family) traveled widely. Notable trips included mid-Cold-War trips behind the “Iron Curtain” and the final sailings of the legendary trans-Atlantic liners Queen Elizabeth and United States. Sold to business associates, the renamed agency closed in 2022. During Thomson’s ownership of the agency, it organized dozens of custom, locally based group tours, including many to Hawaii and Europe.
In 1989, just as fierce competition from Walmart and K-Mart was threatening the viability of the Ben Franklin variety store business, Thomson remembered a particularly delicious sandwich he had purchased from a franchised restaurant while escorting a tour to the Hawaiian Islands. He had written down the particulars of the restaurant, which he thought might be a promising business, and called the founder of the franchise in Connecticut. The founder, Fred DeLuca, and Thomson became friends, and Thomson opened one of the first Subway sandwich shops in Iowa in 1990. His store was one of the first thousand franchises granted by the chain, which later grew to more than 26,000, the largest in the world.
By 2008, Thomson had sold off or closed his other businesses and had ownership interest in 26 Subway restaurants, including stores in Charles City, Nashua, New Hampton, Ankeny, Des Moines, Webster City, Forest City, Osage, Decorah and Mason City.
In 2012, at age 86, Thomson began looking for a new franchise-based business. After three-year’s search, he decided to purchase development rights for Pancheros Mexican Grill for most of the Twin Cities area in Minneapolis. He was named Pancheros national “Franchisee of the Year” for 2016 and 2019.
By necessity (his wife refused to cook on principle), Thomson had started cooking for his family in 1972, after the retirement of his family’s long-time housekeeper, Amelia (“Millie”) Pitzen. What began as a task turned to a passion, with Thomson spending fond hours creating increasingly complicated delicacies. In addition to his delight in travel and fine dining, Thomson was an avid sports fan (particularly for teams from Iowa and “his” Gophers) and a self-proclaimed “tree hugger.” (He said the massive loss of trees in Charles City from the 1968 tornado caused him almost physical pain.)
Thomson was often combative in his insistence on picking up a check for dinner, drinks or admission to an event. He was a prolific donor, often anonymously, to charities, educational institutions, causes, and people he thought could use a helping hand. He and his family helped found the local YMCA Foundation, of which was a former president. He was at various times president of the YMCA itself and the local Lions Club. He was a former member of the Iowa Department of Economic Development and was the supporter (often the organizer) of many Charles City and Iowa economic initiatives. With then-Governor Robert Ray, he helped lead an instrumental Iowa trade delegation to Europe during the Cold War.
Thomson enjoyed assisting his favorite Republican candidates through fundraisers at his home in Charles City. Guests included Govs. Ray and Branstad, Vice President Dan Quayle, Senator Grassley and others. Often, he would throw parties just for the pleasure of inviting people over to his cherished Charles City house, a restored Prairie-esque stucco designed by Mortimer B. Cleveland in 1908.
Born in the Coolidge Administration, Thomson was an enthusiastic consumer and dispenser of news, speculation, gossip and humor about American politics. Sometimes, however, his longevity and sharp memory got the best of him. Once, after complex heart surgery at the Mayo Clinic in 2016, Thomson was irritated at the gall of a Mayo nurse storming into his hospital room and interrupting a business meeting. “But I’m from Physical Therapy!” shouted the dumbfounded nurse. “I don’t care if you’re from John Nance Garner!” retorted Thomson, giving the imperial wave to the startled nurse. The nurse retreated, having no clue that, in addition to the nursing staff, not even a representative of the vice president of the United States from 1933 to 1941 would be welcome in the room.
By turns charming or irascible, taciturn or bombastic, Thomson’s employees sometimes found his company to be an acquired taste. Those who endured the occasional storm fronts often became trusted advisors, key managers bestowed with broad writs. The prime example was his Chief Financial Officer, the indispensable Donna Koebrick, who started with the Thomson organization as a high school student, then stayed for decades through endless changes in personnel, locations, franchises and computer operating systems.
Thomson is survived by his sister, Marian, of La Crosse, his companion of many years, Margaret Jensen, of Charles City, three of his four children, Peter, of Dallas, Molly and Charley, both of Charles City, and his daughter-in-law, Christine Hollister Thomson, of Creston. He was predeceased by his wife Janan (1923-1993) and his son Robert Steven (1955-2017). He is also survived by his grandchildren, Robert Francis Thomson, of Minneapolis, Elizabeth Dale (Joshua) Fioretto, of Creston, and Peter McQuillen (“Mac”) Thomson, of Columbus, Ohio, and his greatgrandchildren, Anthony Stephen and Charlotte (“Charlie”) Fioretto, both of Creston.
A funeral Mass will be offered at 10:30 a.m. on Monday, September 25, 2023, at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Charles City, with burial at Calvary Cemetery following. Visitation will be from 4:00 to 7:00 p.m. on Sunday, September 24, at Hauser Weishaar Funeral Home on South Main Street in Charles City. A Rosary will be prayed at the funeral home starting at 4:00 p.m. on September 24. Before his death, the decedent asked that, in lieu of flowers, any memorials be directed to a charity of the donor’s choice.
Hauser Weishaar Funeral Home, (641) 228-2323, 1205 South Main Street, Charles City, Iowa 50616 is in charge of local arrangements. Online condolences may be left on the Tribute Wall for the family at www.hauserfh.com.