Ordinary people doing extraordinary things: Eric Thompson—Fighting poverty with laughter

May 18, 2018

May 14/21, 2018: Volume 33, Issue 24

By Mara Bollettieri

For the past 25 years, most of Eric Thompson’s loyal customers see him as the longtime owner of Satolli Carpet & Floor Covering, a specialty retailer based in Warren, Ohio. But there’s a whole other side that people might not know. As it turns out, Thompson is also a professional standup comedian/magician who not only performs several nights a week at local clubs, but he also travels the world to deliver laughs and thrills to those who need it most.

Thompson, who has honed his craft over the past 40 years, intentionally selects places to perform that are not typically on most tourists’ radar. As part of his Million Miles, Million Smiles Tour, Thompson performs magic/comedy shows to impoverished people of all ages. He has performed in two dozen countries across five continents, including countries like Cuba, Guatemala, China, Peru, Burkina Faso and more.

The idea for this tour came to him on a trip with his wife to the Caribbean, where he saw the village children playing. “I started showing the kids tricks and they were really into it,” Thompson told FCNews. “They were obviously very poor, I think they were begging. For a moment they forgot about being hungry, poor and oppressed; they were laughing.”

Thompson recalled how grateful the kids seemed that he took the time to get to know and play with them. And that’s when the light bulb turned on. “I thought, why can’t I do this for whole groups of people or whole villages?” he said. “I do shows for hundreds of people at a time at home. I wanted to deliver this to people who don’t normally have joy and laughter in their lives. I have enough people that have money to buy tickets to shows at home.”

So in 2012, with permission from the U.S. government, Thompson performed shows throughout Cuba before travel restrictions were lifted. And through the power of magic, he was able to connect with others despite language barriers.

“Magic opened that door and people let their defenses down and we realized we’re all just people,” Thompson said. “People are the same everywhere. They really enjoy smiling, laughing and being nice to one another.”

Language of laughter

Laughter has allowed Thompson to break language barriers (although he employs translators for certain trips. In fact, his act has been translated into seven languages). One of Thompson’s most memorable moments happened during his visit to Guatemala. During that trip, he came across a small village where eight little boys were playing. He recalled they barely had five marbles to share between them. He went over and played with them. “We were laughing, pushing each other and I pretended like I was cheating,” Thompson recalled.

Unable to communicate in English, one of the boys in the group extended his hand, opened his palm and motioned for Thompson to do the same.  At that point, the boy held Thompson’s hand, placed a marble in it and closed his fingers around it. The child then said something in Spanish. Although Thompson had no idea what he said, he had a feeling it was important. He called over his translator to explain. “He said he wants you to have his marble,” the translator told Thompson, who didn’t feel comfortable taking the marble from the boy. The translator explained that he had to take the marble home. As Thompson recalled, “The boy told the translator that people come from all over the world to build schools, dig trenches for running water and ditches for sewage, build churches and schools, and bring clothes. But you, you came, and got down on the ground and played with us and you brought us laughter. The boy said, ‘I want you to have this marble.’ Here I am, 50-something years old, and this little kid is giving me the wisdom of love.  That was a powerful moment.”

The incident moved him so that when he arrived home from the trip, he bought 11 pounds of marbles and sent them back to Guatemala to be dispersed throughout the villages for all the children. Thompson said he still has the marble on his dresser at home, and he’s shared the story with his grandkids.

On another trip, Thompson performed for a leper colony in China—something he didn’t even realize still existed. “Everybody there is missing a limb, lips, ears and noses. But they were freed with laughter.”

From humanitarian to retailer

Providing joy to others via comedy and magic tricks extends to Thompson’s customer service philosophy. He incorporates some of his schtick when greeting and interacting with shoppers in his store. “You can buy material anywhere for about the same price, but what you don’t get when you buy it somewhere else is me,” he explained. “You can go to Home Depot and Lowe’s, but you’re not going to get the owner who cares and wants it done right.”

Thompson is mindful of his reputation since he resides in a small town. He said this gives him the incentive to go above and beyond when servicing customers. “When I go to the county fair or walk through the mall, I might run into one of my customers,” he explained. “I sure don’t want them yelling at me in front of my grandkids. So, I’m motivated to get the job done right and at a fair price and earn their business.”

The exceptional service Thompson provides is evident by the comments customers leave on his Facebook page. “We have remodeled every room in our house and every time we have chosen Satolli Carpet & Floor Covering,” said Kelly Stroup Chambers. “We have been doing business with Eric for well over 10 years and are always completely satisfied.”

Other customers, such as Lori Ferguson-Nottingham, agree. “My experience at Satolli Carpet & Floor Covering was a wonderful one. The installers were prompt and the carpet looked so great. I plan to revisit them for my kitchen and bathroom.”

Thompson’s partners across the supply chain also sing his praises. “I’ve known Eric Thompson for a number of years,” said Scott McKnight, territory manager with Certified Flooring Distributors, which operates branches in Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh) and Ohio (Cleveland and Columbus). “He is honest and fair with his customers, and he also keeps them informed about the latest trends and technologies. He goes the extra mile for them.”

Dan Zembiak, senior territory manager of State Crest Carpet & Flooring, also based in Cleveland, said, “I have known Eric since he first entered the floor covering business almost 30 years ago. What stands out most is his outgoing personality and sense of humor, his ability to make others around him feel at ease. It’s no wonder he’s been able to achieve such a high level of success.”

Life lessons applied to the workplace

Eric Thompson’s philanthropic efforts have brought happiness to individuals in underprivileged areas globally. At the same time, his experiences have taught him valuable lessons that he has applied to his business.

“I’ve learned to negotiate a little bit better,” Thompson told FCNews. “Everywhere you go, when you go shopping in another country, generally those markets are filled with great negotiators.” This, he explained, has allowed him to step his game up since he has experienced haggling with the true experts. “When I have to negotiate with a vendor, I’m a little better at it because I’ve done it in 110-degree heat,” he noted.

Thompson’s experiences with other cultures has also taught him to be flexible. “To be adaptable to change and to know that one idea or one reaction is not the only idea or reaction,” he said. “I listen to my employees, my installers—they spend more hours in the customer’s house than I do.”

He’s also learned to be open-minded and vigilant, especially having survived multiple economic downturns. He explained that the location of his store is in an economically depressed region. Many times, he said, within the last two-and-a-half decades in particular, he thought he would have to close up shop, especially during the time when the housing bubble burst. But he turned out to be wrong. “I learned how to look at economic indicators and allow for more than one resolve, to be open-minded,” he explained. “I’ve learned that growth can come in lots of forms, not just geographical. So I don’t have to have another store.”

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