SHIFT TALKS: Interview with Tim Thompson, CEO of AKJ Education and General Partner at Vicour

6/14/17

Tim Thompson

SHIFT Baltimore is the world's only mission-driven, localized, invite-only entrepreneurial membership community. Our mission is to create a new standard for business, one where money and mission are not mutually exclusive. We use the most rigorous, holistic approach to personal and professional performance: honoring the whole-self of business, body, balance, and being. We are creating meaningful, sustainable change aligned with the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Our members are relentlessly committed to inspiring, influencing, innovating, and impacting Baltimore. And we're spreading across the word!

We are thrilled to introduce SHIFT Talks: a series of unique stories from local entrepreneurs, each detailing how they've experienced shifts within their personal life, their company’s journey, their industry, and most importantly, our city. Their stories. Their SHIFT Talks.

Tim Thompson is the CEO of AKJ Education and General Partner at Vicour.

AKJ reduces the barriers, namely time and money, between educators and the quality instructional materials they need. AKJ is an education company that develops customized classroom libraries and curriculum solutions using print and digital books, resources for hands-on STEM education, and professional development resources from over 400 publishers and content partners. Founded in 1974 and led by Tim since 2006, AKJ works with schools and education companies nationwide from its headquarters in Baltimore County. Vicour has completed nine acquisitions to date and is aggressively working to expand its portfolio of holdings this year.

As a very strategic thinker and go-getter, Tim is someone who is truly committed to making the community better. He has devoted much of his professional career to young people and improving education.


Q. Can you tell us a little bit about your professional journey?

A. For at least the last 10 to 12 years, I have viewed myself primarily as a business builder. I considered my profession as a business optimizer. I spent a number of years working locally with Sylvan Learning, where I got to help lead the incubation of new business models within the organization. That was a great learning experience, a great skill-building experience, and a great confidence-building experience. From that, I discovered my vision was to become an entrepreneur, and I decided to do that through acquisition, ownership, and operation of small middle-market businesses.

In 2006, along with some partners, I acquired an education company that’s now called AKJ Education and have been the majority owner and CEO of that business since that time. Simultaneously, through an organization called Vicour, we’ve begun to build a portfolio of operating companies in the privately-held lower middle market, in a variety of industries. I’m primarily an education entrepreneur, but as a proud generalist I love the ability to gain exposure and work in other industries as well.

The most significant moment for me professionally came during my tenure at Sylvan. I had one of those moments in a pressure-filled meeting about results and growth where it occurred to me that suddenly I had the skill set, I had the aptitude, I had the desire, and, mostly, I had the confidence to do this myself. I learned through that experience I had what it took. Business became demystified for me, and I discovered my path forward. From there, I began to think about what entrepreneurship look like for me, and what’s the best way to execute the plan. I am not a quit-my-job, bootstrap-from-the-ground-up type of manager. I’m an optimizer. I’m an incrementalist. For me, finding an established business with momentum and lots of opportunity to grow is the model for me. And that’s been the model my partners and I have been executing since the beginning.

Q. What’s one experience you’ve had that really got your heart pumping?

A. I like to spend time outside as much as possible, and I’m a fairly avid skier. Up on Mount Washington in New Hampshire there’s a spot called Tuckerman’s Ravine that is fairly aggressive, fairly extreme, and has a natural bowl you can hike into and ski. It’s at its best in the late spring after the winter season is over. We hiked in from the base of Mount Washington up about four or five miles to the peak. The experience of climbing up the headwall, and dropping into some of the most extreme conditions on the East Coast was exhilarating.

Q. Can you tell us about some experiences you aim to tackle?

A. I don’t keep an official bucket list, but I would say number one on my list right now is completing the Ironman Kona with my family. My wife and I both race triathlons, and do a pretty full season each year. Recently my kids have started to get involved in the sport as well. They’re still in middle school, but they’re very active, and we see 10 years down the line completing the Ironman with them … if my wife and I are still as healthy as we are now. We would love to complete that race together as a family.

Q. As an entrepreneur, how do you shift the purpose of business?

A. That’s an interesting question, and it comes up a lot, especially in our work with SHIFT. I try and address it in a couple of different ways. I believe I see things a little differently than others in the group, in that I don’t think the purpose of business is shifting. I think the purpose of business has always been to deliver value to clients, to drive innovation, to create jobs for people, to help develop careers, and to create value for shareholders. I think all of those things are the purpose of business.

What I am focused on with SHIFT, and what my colleagues spend a lot of time talking about, is how we add a new dimension to the purpose of business. I believe that dimension is impact. Impact in a local community or impact in the industry you work in. I don’t think it’s a change in focus, I think perhaps it’s a broadening in focus.

The real question I see is: what are we doing as a business to make an impact in our community? We start with little things we can do to support the industry we work in. We work almost exclusively at AKJ with public education, so we support public schools all around the country, as well as locally. We do whatever we can, whether its gifts in kind, financial donations, or community service. Our employees are all encouraged to give back. We have employees who are reading coaches for students, and employees who help coordinate food drives. None of it is mandated. We don’t want to force our employees to take part, but we definitely encourage them to get involved. We make it high-profile in the company by making sure people feel like its okay to do those kinds of things, and to do them on company time. These are small incremental things, but my belief is if you do lots of little things consistently that amounts to a significant shift.

Additionally, I think, “How can I program and allocate my time to help other organizations?” I use some of my free time to consult with early-stage companies for free. I give them my time and talk through issues and see where we can help. I believe that things like this all lead to difference making shifts in the market.

Q. How has being a member of SHIFT benefitted you as an entrepreneur?

A. The experience with SHIFT has been great from the start. It’s ever changing and that’s a good thing. We are a group that is both likeminded and very different. I’d be interested to hear what everybody’s respective answers were to “how do you shift business?”

I really enjoy being able to come together regularly, to think about questions you’re not always thinking about on your own, and to take some risks and share information with colleagues. There’s a level of accountability and a degree of creativity that comes from collaborating with one another.

Just yesterday another SHIFT member called me and said, “I’ve got a meeting Friday. Can you talk? I need to pick your brain,” and in a 10-minute conversation, we were able to move him seven steps forward in his prep. It wasn’t because I had all the answers, it was because I asked one question he hadn’t thought about. And I got something out of that conversation too. We both profited, and that is one of the core benefits of SHIFT.

Connect with Tim on LinkedIn

Sponsored by:

SHIFT is the only business collective brave and bold enough to shift the work world to transform the real world. We help you solve your organization's most pressing issues, achieve your ambitious goals, and capitalize on your greatest opportunities, to grow regardless.

Edwin Warfield, CEO of citybizlist, conducts the CEO Interviews.

If you're interested in reaching CEOs, please contact edwin.warfield@citybizlist.com

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