Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Ken Thomson, Charles Bronson and me

VICTORIA - Mostly what I thought when I heard that Ken Thomson had died was that now I could only claim personal acquaintance with two billionaires.
Not that I knew Mr. Thomson well, but we did dine together. Thomson Newspapers, in the last years that there was such a thing, had a conference at a golf resort in Florida and he had flown in for the last day. Since I was in my beloved corporate stage at that point, and could be counted on to use a knife and fork at dinner, I was seated at the chairman's table that evening.
Talk was strained. Thomson seemed shy, and a little odd. He tossed his tie over his shoulder when the soup came to avoid spills - although his crisp white shirt was then exposed to risk. He spoke of his father Roy - who had been dead for almost 20 years - as if he were a powerful presence. What would Dad say, he wondered, when talk turned to some difficult decision.
Thomson's brilliance in the 30 years he ran the company was in knowing when to get in and out of businesses. The corporation moved into North Sea oil and then out when growth prospects slowed. It made money in retailing with the Hudson's Bay Company and then left the business. Thomson built its British-based travel operations into a $1-billion business and then sold it.
By the time we sat down to dinner Thomson was giving newspapers one last chance.
The corporation had done wonderfully from papers since Roy Thomson bought the Timmins Express in 1934. Up until the 1980s the monopoly newspapers in towns across North America produced huge profit margins and cash that was used to expand the corporation, both into international newspaper holdings and new business areas.
Then urban sprawl engulfed many of the communities Thomson newspapers had dominated, and competition rolled in along with it. New technology slashed the costs of entry for rivals.
By the late 1980s the newspaper business was still producing good profits, but it wasn't growing. Thomson had a richly deserved reputation for frugal operation, so cost-cutting to boost profits wasn't an option. There was nothing to cut.
But to his credit Thomson was not prepared to give up on newspapers, the foundation of the business, without giving us a good chance. By the time of that dinner the newspaper division - some 150 papers with more than $1 billion in revenue - was on its second batch of senior managers charged with finding ways to deliver growth.
It didn't work. Within a few years the newspapers were up for sale. The Thomson Corp. focused on electronic publishing, selling specialized information about banking and the law to clients who would pay top dollar.
But back to dinner. Conversation did not flow terribly smoothly, despite our best efforts. Thomson, while very nice, was not one of those big guys with an easy and entirely superficial charm. We struggled for topics.
Until the publisher from a Louisiana newspaper - not just smart but a woman, ensuring her place at the favoured table - mentioned traditional New Orleans jazz. Thomson became genuinely interested. He loved the music, and then wondered if we had seen a Charles Bronson movie called Hard Times, set in New Orleans in the '30s. (It is a good movie.)
One of his favourites, said Thomson, who said he was a fan of Bronson, although a bit disappointed in some of the later Death Wish sequels. He had sent Bronson a note when he was shooting in Toronto - it might have been Death Wish V - inviting him to dinner, but never got a reply. Thomson looked kind of sad at that. He really would have found an evening talking movies with Charles Bronson a great pleasure.
It was charming. Not just his fondness for the movies, but his willingness to share his enthusiasm with us.
A smart business guy, of course. But I'll think of a movie buff, and a grown man still faintly intimidated by a larger-than-life father.
Footnote: For those interested, the other billionaire acquaintances are two of the senior members of the New Brunswick Irving family, for whom I managed newspapers for a time.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I too had a dining experience with the late Lord Thomson. I was the publisher at a small Georgia newspaper - probably the smallest one in the chain. I had brought two of my reporters with me who had earned national awards of excellence, and we ended up seated with Mr. Thomson.
The conversation was cordial, up until the point where one of my reporters -- a likeable if somewhat unpolished guy -- asked if the $1,000 prize money was in "Canadian money or real money."
I was horrified, but Mr. Thomson let out a wry smile that tipped us off that he thought the question unroariously funny.