Kenneth Thomson: 1923-2006

A bashful billionaire and savvy businessman remembered--and a look ahead at what's next for Thomson Corp.

The last time Domenico Aiello saw Ken Thomson, Canada's richest man had dropped in on Aiello's Camerini Ristorante in midtown Toronto for a Sunday-night nosh with his wife, Marilyn. “He had just arrived from a garden party,” Aiello says, and the couple wanted to end the evening with a quiet dinner. It was a familiar request, one that the restaurateur was happy to fulfil for one of his most regular customers. When the couple got up to leave, the 82-year-old corporate magnate shook Aiello's hand at the door, as was his custom, and said: “I'll be seeing you soon.” It was about 10 p.m.

But just 12 hours later, on the morning of June 12, the world would learn that Thomson had died suddenly of an apparent heart attack. Thomson had arrived early that Monday at his office in downtown Toronto, an almost-daily ritual despite the fact that he had officially retired as chairman of Thomson Corp. in 2002 (though he still held the title of chairman at the family's private holding company, Woodbridge Co. Ltd.). As was often the case, Thomson was accompanied by one of the family's beloved dogs, Skylet. But he collapsed and died in the hall outside his office, just after 8 a.m. “He was a remarkable man who did so much to build this business by constantly investing in the future,” Thomson CEO and president Richard Harrington said in a statement announcing the death.

Thomson, the youngest child of Roy Thomson–the larger-than-life barber's son who created a business empire that began with a tiny radio station in Northern Ontario–took over the family's business interests upon Roy's death in 1976. He became chairman of Thomson Corp. when it was formed in 1978 and remained at the helm until eldest son David, 49, took over four years ago.

Thomson, who owned about 70% of Thomson Corp. along with his family, navigated the company's transformation from being a major player in North American newspapers–as well as the owner of interests ranging from North Sea oil and travel agencies to Canadian retail icon Hudson's Bay Co.–into a global provider of legal, investment and medical information, largely in electronic format. Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, who sits on the Thomson board, describes this wholesale transformation as “one of the boldest” he has ever seen in business. With personal assets estimated at more than $22 billion, Thomson has topped the Canadian Business annual Rich 100 list since it was first published, in 1999, while Forbes lists him as the world's ninth-richest person.

Journalist Peter Newman, who chronicles the lives of the Canadian Establishment, calls Thomson the “quintessential Canadian.” His dignified style may have been old-fashioned, says Newman, “but in a nice way.” His passing represents “not just his death but the death of the way he did business.”

For Aiello, the fact Thomson had spent his last evening on earth in such an unassuming way–a quiet meal with his wife, with whom he was set to celebrate 50 years of marriage on June 13–speaks volumes about the man. “He could afford to go anywhere he wanted to,” says Aiello, yet Camerini–a 32-seat neighbourhood Italian restaurant–was one of his favourite places to dine. Thomson came as often as three times a week, and it was a choice spot for family celebrations, including, says Aiello, an 80th birthday dinner in Ken's honour back in September 2003. “We made him a beautiful tiramisu that time,” Aiello says.

Thomson's lack of pretense is one characteristic that all who knew him point to when summing up the man. His reticent, bashful demeanor–especially in public appearances–is juxtaposed with tales of personal warmth. “I never met anyone who could make [people] feel better about themselves,” says Woodbridge president Geoff Beattie. “He was a better person than a businessman, and he was one of the greatest businessmen this country has ever known.”

Thomson rarely granted private interviews to the media, but when he did, he was gracious and more than willing to talk about the things he loved. This is especially true when it came to art and dogs. In 2002, for example, he spoke extensively with Luba Krekhovetsky, then managing editor of Canadian Business, following his donation of about 2,000 prized works to the Art Gallery of Ontario. The gift, worth about $300 million, includes more than 200 Group of Seven paintings as well as Thomson's collection of rare European objets d'art. He also earmarked $50 million for an expansion of the AGO building (with Canadian-born architect Frank Gehry designing the new wing) and gave an additional endowment of $20 million to the gallery. Here's his description of the day he purchased one of his favourite possessions, a boxwood statuette of an old man, dated around 1520: “As we drove back, I kept the statuette on my lap, and I just treated it so carefully. I can't bear the thought that I could ever damage it.”

More recently, in December, Thomson chatted amiably on the phone with Canadian Business about his relationship with dogs, even after a reporter missed the appointed time for the interview. Following an apologetic call to his executive assistant, Loraine King, Thomson was on the line 10 minutes later, happily talking about ChouChou, Meena and Skylet, who belongs to his granddaughter. “They are about the most important things in our lives,” he said. “Of course, there are family and grandchildren. But I tell you, they are right there with family.”

Another insight into Thomson comes from his curious relationship with the Canadian Business Rich 100. While he did not want to be interviewed about his money–indeed, he would express dismay at the annual ranking and ask that the wealth be attributed to the family, not to him alone–each year he would supply us with personal photographs. It was as if Thomson wanted the public to know who he was, despite his propensity to shun the spotlight.

As for the world of commerce, Thomson was smart enough to know it was important to surround himself with those who were even smarter. “He left behind the idea that if you own a large corporation, which you control with your family, that you need professional management and that you have to have the best working for you,” says Montreal-based investment counsellor Stephen Jarislowsky. Rotman's Martin says Thomson “was sufficiently confident in himself to surround himself with fantastic people to whom he gave great amounts of authority, but he was not going to micromanage.” But Newman points out Thomson was not passive. “Maybe he left that impression, but that's not the way it worked.”

For all his wealth, Lord Thomson of Fleet–a title he inherited from his father but never used in Canada–lived frugally. Examples of his penny-pinching are legendary. There's one story from Newman about an acquaintance bumping into Thomson in a grocery store, who was stocking up on buns because they were on sale. Another anecdote featured Thomson searching for a lost loonie, holding up the line at the checkout counter. Yet for things that truly mattered to him, whether it was a financial deal or a piece of art, he was willing to spend big. “He was someone who loved art deeply and believed that it would help people see things in a different way,” says Matthew Teitelbaum, director and CEO of the AGO. Not only did Thomson have a great desire to keep important Canadian works–such as those by the Group of Seven, Cornelius Krieghoff and Paul Kane–in Canada, but “he felt it was important to bring to Canada great works of art from Europe and other parts of the world that might not otherwise come,” says Teitelbaum.

Thomson also had a strong affection for The Globe and Mail, the last newspaper to remain in his corporate fold. In 2000, he announced a partnership between Woodbridge and telecom giant BCE Inc. to create Bell Globemedia Inc., an entity that would also include CTV Inc. When media convergence didn't work quite as planned for BCE, the Thomson family agreed in December to become the biggest shareholder in Bell Globemedia, with 40%; BCE, Torstar Corp. and Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan would each have 20%. The decision is still under government review.

As for what the future holds, sons David and Peter will be co-chairmen of Woodbridge (there is also a daughter, Lynne, now known as Taylor). Those in the know say that David, who has had the most direct role in looking after the business, has been a faithful student of his father. “I can't think of what they could have done at Thomson and Woodbridge to plan and organize [succession] better,” says Rotman's Martin.

Newman says he is impressed with David Thomson's abilities, especially “if he decides to apply himself.” David's “got the brain and the intuition, but will he decide that this is his destiny?” For his part, Martin is “both hopeful and cautious” that “with the planning that's been done, and the care that's been taken,” the next generation “will make Ken proud.”