The Gift of Confidence

Father-daughter partnership based on family, education, business savvy

Lilly Corning Thompson and her dad touch base more than a dozen times a day. The frequent phone calls are more than idle chatter. Rather, they are the fuel that keeps Corning Companies moving forward.

Lilly’s father, Steve Corning, is a long-time commercial real estate developer in Billings. As president of Corning Companies, he has developed more than 1.3 million square feet of properties over the past 45 years. Steve represents the third generation of Corning men who seized opportunities that led to business success. His grandfather, Harry, built Radio Supply Companies, and his father, Jim, expanded that company and later developed Alpine Village. Lilly marks the fourth generation to follow in their footsteps.

Now 32, Lilly has been vice president of Corning Companies for the past six years. Although business savvy runs in her blood, her current position was anything but preordained. Her story is more about family values, education and her knack for juggling many balls simultaneously.

As a young child growing up in Billings, Lilly had little understanding of what kept her father busy. She does remember, however, Steve’s attitude when he came home from work.

“He never bemoaned his job. He was always excited about it,” she says. 

She also recalls her father and mother, Jen, instilling self-accountability, confidence and good judgment in both Lilly and her older brother, Joe.

“From my earliest memories, Steve took us seriously,” Lilly says. “And in turn, I felt that if he believed in me, I could do it. That’s a real gift, that kind of confidence.”

Today, in their roles at Corning Companies, she and Steve complement each other — he tends to be more “old school.”  She leans toward data-driven analytics.

“I think we’re undoubtedly better working together than independently,” Lilly says, and then smiles. “We’re really good at trading worries.”

Though they have bonded through their business, they both speak less of corporate accomplishments than of the educational opportunities that paved their paths. That commitment to education is generational. Even during his teens, Steve, a 1971 graduate of Billings Senior, hungered to explore the broader world. Accepted at Harvard, he describes his college years there as a “life-changing experience” that impressed upon him the value of a topnotch education. Ultimately, that experience not only shaped Steve’s destiny but that of his children.

Raised in that culture,  Lilly was only in the eighth grade when she applied for the merit-based Cook Scholarship. She won the scholarship, which is awarded to only one Montanan each year, and the opportunity to attend St. Paul’s boarding school in New Hampshire.

“I never worked harder in my life than at boarding school,” she says. She likens her years there as the “jet fuel” that propelled her forward. 

At St. Paul’s, she not only excelled at her studies but as a member of the school’s highly rated rowing team. The latter earned her recruiting invitations from several Ivy League institutions.

Like her father and brother before her, Lilly opted for Harvard. From Harvard, she went on to earn a master’s degree at Oxford. She credits her years in academia for sharpening her broad skills — most notably critical thinking — that she applies on a daily basis at Corning Companies.

But it wasn’t all book learning. Off on her own — including a senior year in France, when she could barely speak the language — not only honed her intellect but imbued in her a sense of fearlessness.

“That was the second time in my life I was separated from what my identity was previously tied to,” Lily says. “It was very humbling but helped me develop a strong sense of self.”

When Lilly left academia, she moved to San Francisco to work for Google.  As a “small cog” in an enormous machine, she found herself feeling uninspired. And so, she began toying with a notion, the seed of which she’d harbored for years.

“I always talked with Steve about coming back,” she says. “It’s really hard to ignore a family business that’s successful, interesting and located in an amazing place.”

When Lilly returned to Billings in 2018, she returned with some trepidation.

“After living in all of these places, moving back to Billings somehow seemed like the scariest move – perhaps it felt like higher stakes,” she says.

But her time away had shed light on the special qualities of the people and place.

“What I really appreciate is, it’s up to you to determine the shape of your life here,” she says. “That level of autonomy is really interesting and unique to Montana.” 

In a whirlwind of life changes, her boyfriend — now husband — Will Thompson proposed on the road trip home. Then, immediately upon her arrival in the Magic City, Steve nabbed her. 

“He pulled me into meetings the first five minutes I was in Billings,” she says, laughing.

The tactic embodied Steve’s faith in her capabilities and his philosophy that lessons are best learned by doing.

“I thought it was so incredibly important that she see everything from the get-go,” he says. “When you see your child as an associate, everybody else will, too.”

As both father and associate — not necessarily in that order — Steve admires Lilly for her drive and intellect.

“She obviously had privilege and opportunities,” he says. “But she always utilized those to the fullest. She was full-throttle — all in.”

Both qualities proved invaluable as they navigated the Covid years, reshaping hundreds of deals with lenders and leasees to keep all parties afloat.

“Every Friday I’d come over to their house with a bottle of champagne,” Lilly says. “We’d made it through another week.”

Steve also compliments Lilly’s approach to business relationships — the way she assumes that all parties come to the table with good intentions.

“That’s how Lilly operates,” he says.  

Lilly describes Steve as a man with a “capacious mind and ironclad memory.” She holds high regard for his ability to welcome new ideas from everywhere and his flair for connecting with a variety of people and understanding their perspectives.

“In fact, I think that, for him, the happiest place in the world is in the front seat of a New York City cab, chatting with the driver,” she says.

She credits Jen for keeping the family grounded and for encouraging her daughter to proceed with generosity.

“She’s very much the flip side of the coin to Steve,” Lilly says, noting Jen’s slower, more patient approach to life. “That ‘assuming positive intent’? That came from my mom.”

Like both parents, Lilly has also learned the value of civic engagement. Now with a young daughter of her own — Ollie is almost 2 — Lilly has less time but more reason to invest in her community. She sits on the Billings Chamber board, interviews candidates for Harvard, leads the board of directors for the St. Paul’s School Cook Scholarship and serves as executive chairperson of the community advisory board of Rocky Vista University.

If that didn’t keep her busy enough, Lilly recently took the plunge and, with a couple of friends/partners, purchased the Caramel Cookie Waffle Company, a café known for its authentic Dutch offerings and those tasty stroopwafels.

As she juggles her many roles, Lilly strives to assume more of the day-to-day dealings at Corning Companies. That allows Steve a bit more freedom for the long run, she says.

The risks still rattle her on occasion, but she approaches the fast-changing world with conviction.

“I am so confident in our family culture, our broader community and Montana in general,” she says, “especially with Steve as my co-pilot.”


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