Vision of history

Lotz Foundation leader skillfully transitions from TV news director to nonprofit executive director

J.T. Thompson represents the best qualities of entrepreneurship.

The executive director of Franklin-based The Lotz House Foundation (which oversees a specialty museum, The Lotz House, that displays the Thompson family antique collection) is focused as much on accomplishing something positive for the community as he is on succeeding in generating revenue and creating jobs.

“I didn’t set out to be an entrepreneur and it’s never been one of my goals, but it happened organically with a combination of recognizing the opportunity when I saw the house was on the market and realizing what an incredible backdrop it would make for the Thompson antique collection,” Thompson says. “The more I learned about the Lotz family, the more I researched and uncovered a compelling story that needed to be told.”

A former news director with WSMV-TV, Lotz became an entrepreneur “by necessity.”

“Every day, I work hard to think creatively on how I can get people to walk through the door, take the tours, tell others about it and grow the business,” he says.

Growing the nonprofit business has not been easy. Though nonprofits continue to earn more and more respect as the legitimate businesses they are, some folks struggle to give full credit.

“Contrary to what some people may think, a nonprofit business is just like any other business,” Thompson says. “You start with a good product. In addition, you have to believe in the product, know the product and effectively sell the product. Being a nonprofit requires more administrative time, energy and effort. Plans need to be in place, bills have to be paid, staff and volunteers have to be trained.”

The Lotz House Foundation, much like a for-profit entity, has a board of directors and members.

“Having run a nonprofit for five years, I can attest to the fact that it is just like any other business, but with an additional layer of effort,” Thompson says.

Thompson says his days at WSMV prepared him well for his work overseeing The Lotz House.

“With a paid staff of more than 100 and working with a multi-million-dollar budget for a Fortune 500 company, I understood budgets, numbers and profit and loss statements quite well,” he says. “What I’ve learned on the job, working at a small nonprofit, is to pick up pennies and make every dollar spent mean something.”

The television news background has helped Thompson produce DVDs and CDs about the Battle of Franklin, the Battle of Nashville and the McGavock Confederate Cemetery.  Two years ago, before the Tennessee Sesquicentennial Commission was even started, he produced commemorative Hatch Show Prints of various aspects of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War.”

Indeed, like any entrepreneur, Thompson is a visionary. But his vision involves understanding how society benefits when its members understand their history more so than it involves instituting the latest marketing move, product investment or hiring policy. Not that Thompson does not think of those things, too.

“The beautiful thing about this for me personally is that I get to do everything,” he says. “I get to give guided tours, deal with the public, develop creative things we can afford to do. If the trash in the front yard needs to be picked up or the restrooms need to be cleaned, I do that as well. Every day requires both administrative and visionary traits. I don’t have the luxury of choosing one area.”

The Lotz House, which sits on ground zero of the bloody Battle of Franklin, has been on the National Historic Register since 1976. But 14 years ago, it was almost sold and used to house a Mexican restaurant. Playing off the name, the prospective buyer was going to call the business “Lotz of Tacos.”  

Such a move would have been an abomination to Thompson, who wants his fellow citizens to respect their history.

“One of the major challenges is getting across to visitors that a Civil War house museum isn’t just for Civil War enthusiasts,” he says. “Relevancy is the key word. What happened at the Lotz House 150 years ago is relevant to us today. The simple way to explain that is to say there were 10,000 American casualties – in five very tragic hours 150 years ago. How do you comprehend that?  Is sounds difficult, but imagine experiencing three days of 9-11 back to back to back.” 

The Lotz House will never draw the type crowds that, say, a high-profile art museum or zoo will. And Thompson is fine with that.

“My philosophy is this: Behave like the market leader,” he says, “even though you’re not.”