Thompson Machine Tools celebrates 50 years in the machine tool industry

“Surviving 50 years in the machine tool business is a significant achievement and we would like to sincerely thank all our clients, suppliers and friends in the industry that have supported us during this period,” commented Philip Thompson, MD of the company.

“We have endured the ups and downs of the industry in this time but have always maintained a positive attitude and taken steps to ensure that the business continued to grow,” remarked Philip.

The privately held company was started by Philip’s brothers Fred and the late Frank Thompson in 1971. Fred is Chairman of the Thompson Machine Tool Group and remains an active partner in the business today. Frank started his own business Harp Machine Tools in 1985 and sadly passed away in 2018.

Initially the primary focus of the business was on used machine tools but also on locally made Colchester type lathes and sheetmetal machines. Capstan lathes were part of the mix as well.

Thompson Machinery, as the company was originally known as, subsequently changed its name to Thompson Machine Tools. As time moved on additional companies focusing on the metalworking industry were started and eventually a holding company – Thompson Machine Tool Group – was formed.

At one stage the Group comprised of seven companies and was made up of Thompson Machine Tools, which still services the used machine tool segment. The other companies include Craft Industrial Equipment, which was originally known as Craft Machine Tools (established 1988), a company that imports and sells locally new machine tools, Interprovince Engineering Supplies, a company that caters for the machine tool spares and accessories market, auctioneering company Trackman Auctioneers, financing business FKF Finance and Trison Machine Movers.

The current directors of the Thompson Machine Tool Group Gavin Kriek, Fred Thompson (Chairman), Philip Thompson (MD) and Thomas Zackey

Fred (79), an Irishman born in Belfast and one of eight siblings, emigrated to South Africa in 1963, following his brother Frank. Being part of a large family with a strong association, Fred has always included those close to him in his business. As a 16-year-old apprentice brother Philip (65) joined the company in 1972 and in 1980 sisters Isabelle and Shirley joined the company on the administration side. Philip is now the MD of the Group.

The sisters are no longer part of the business with Isabelle having retired after 27 years and Shirley having emigrated to the US. But still keeping it in the family, Isabel’s daughter Cheryl joined the company as Administration Manager, taking over from Isabelle.

The fourth of the brothers, John was also briefly a director of the company before moving to Canada. John has subsequently returned to South Africa and is now involved with Frank’s business.

Isabelle’s husband Patrick Zackey (73) came on board when Interprovince Engineering Supplies was formed in 1987 and was Sales Director until he retired in 2013. Fred’s son Ryan (46) was with the company for six years as well before emigrating to Australia. Fred’s eldest son Danny (52) joined the family business in 1990 and was Sales Director responsible for new machine tool sales and the auctioneering aspect of the business before following his brother to Perth, Australia in 2016.

Subsequently Isabelle and Patrick’s son Anton also joined the company on the sales and marketing side. However, Anton has now emigrated to Perth in 2015. Brother Thomas freelanced for the group with business partner Gavin Kriek, under GT Mobile Machine Tools for six years before buying his father’s shares.

The first non-family member to be appointed a director of the company was Gavin Kriek. He was appointed to the position in 2014, the same time when the company name changed to Craft Industrial Equipment.

Although all the businesses contribute significantly to the bottom line, Craft Industrial Equipment has emerged as an important arm of the Group.

“We only started selling imported new machine tools in the mid-nineties,” commented Philip Thompson. “We realised at the time that with the advent of CNC, technology in machine tools was growing rapidly and we needed to be able to offer our clients an alternative to a used conventional machine tool. Today of course there are many used CNC controlled machine tools in the market but at the time when we entered the market there were only a few available.”

The founders of the Group Fred and the late Frank Thompson

“We have kept Craft Industrial Equipment relatively small in terms of the number of international builders that we represent but we cover a significant portion of the disciplines required for metal removal, cutting or forming. The principles we represent manufacture machines for turning, milling, drilling, laser, plasma and oxy-fuel cutting, press brake, guillotine, plate rolling and punching operations,” explained Philip Thompson.

“The Feeler CNCs cover a comprehensive range for all precision engineering applications with CNC turning centers and vertical machining centers being the primary offerings.”

“The other companies that Craft represents are more focused on the conventional side but with all the modern day technical requirements. These include the Win-Ho horizontal lathes and gap bed lathes up to a five metre turning length.”

“We also have our own range of machines which we have aptly branded Craft. All this equipment is imported from Taiwan and China and fit into the entry level segment of the market. They are a range of conventional machine tools and include centre lathes, band saws, turret mills, radial arm drills, surface grinders, press brakes and guillotines.”

“For those clients wanting to make that initial step into the CNC arena Craft also offers a reliable entry level CNC turning center and machining center.”

Over the years the Group has been very instrumental in upholding the standards of the members of the Used Machine Tool Merchants Association of South Africa (UMTMA), an association that Fred and his brother Frank were founding members of in 1980. Fred has served as Chairman on a number of occasions and has been a long serving, active committee member. He was at one point an advisor to the dtic on imported used machine tools as well. The Thompson Group is also a member of the Machine Tool Merchants Association of South Africa (MTMA), a body that has companies dealing in new machine tools as its members.

Brother Philip has followed in Fred’s footsteps and was Chairman of the UMTMA from 2008 until 2010.

An important date in the Group’s history was in 1988 when they built their own 3 000m² facility in Hamburg Road, Apex Industrial Site, Benoni, Gauteng.

“We moved from a factory that was very old and not conducive to the image we were trying to portray. The modern facility, which still looks as though we moved in yesterday, has dedicated areas for the different aspects of our businesses including a service and refurbishing department. In addition we installed three 16-ton overhead cranes that gave us the flexibility to quickly and easily move machines around which we were not able to do previously,” explained Philip Thompson.

A picture of the directors, all of them family, before emigration and retirement: Danny Thompson, Patrick Zackey, Philip Thompson, Fred Thompson and Ryan Thompson

Chairman Fred Thompson lists running and horse racing as something he does after hours. Like the energy that he has put into the business over the years Fred has done the same for his leisure pursuits. Running is a way of life for Fred and so is selling machine tools. It is life itself that he is passionate about and this exudes in all his mannerisms.

A solid, upright and lucid citizen, and Fred may feel uncomfortable at being labelled a hero, but any man that has completed the Comrades Marathon (90 kms of sweat and blood and arguably the greatest ultramarathon in the world) 20 times, and the Two Oceans Marathon 25 times, is someone that must have guts, determination and a will to succeed in life. Put into perspective that is close to running to Cape Town and back from Johannesburg, and that is just in these two races. There are many, many more kilometres that have been run in training and other races, too many to account for.

Some perceive Fred’s approach as arrogant but in reality it is all part of his professional, dedicated and determined approach to his businesses and leisure activities.

Horse racing and more particularly as an owner, has been a big part of Fred’s life since 1975. He and his late brother Frank, through their brother-in-law Bill Leathem, became interested in racing, met trainer Roy Howe and started buying horses. Fred and Frank were loyal patrons of Howe’s from the mid-1970s until his death in 2001. With over 98 winners and 100 places, they have achieved some measure of achievement in the sport. Their first runner, Art Royal, won five times but the biggest thrill came with a horse called To & Fro, which won the Gilbeys Stakes and Merchants Handicap, both feature races in 1978. The gelding eventually registered 10 wins and eight places from 21 starts. Other good performers included Captain’s Jewel and Dr Lu, who each won six races. Fred and Frank were regular weekly race goers – and among the best-dressed ones.

Philip jokes that he has become a wine connoisseur over the years, having visited numerous wine farms and exhibitions, both locally and internationally. He is also a keen golfer “although I am mostly in the rough,” said Philip.

Brother-in-law Patrick Zackey, who is now retired and was a director, joined the company in 1982 when Interprovince Engineering Supplies was established. He adopted the Thompson family hard work ethic and was instrumental in the success of the machine tool spares and accessories business.

“When we started we were an unknown but I believed in the ‘mobile’ delivery philosophy. I would load up my delivery van with numerous different tools and go and visit engineering companies. They would purchase their requirements and have instant delivery,” commented Patrick.

Before emigrating Fred’s eldest son Danny was very successful in his chosen leisure activity of bodybuilding and represented his province at SA Champs on a number of occasions.

Looking forward, the directors of the Group would like to see South African machine tool users become more responsible in preventative maintenance with their equipment.

“The same 30-year-old machine tool in the UK would be like a Rolls Royce compared to one of similar age in South Africa. In fact I think it would have already been confined to the scrap heap,” said Fred Thompson.

“It is very sad to see how our families have been split up by emigration. But then if you look at my five siblings that are still alive, we have been adventurous as well. Four of us are still living in South Africa and Shirley is in the US.”

For further details contact the Thompson Machine Tool Group on TEL: 011 845 2030