Ask the Legends: Peter H. Thomas

The founder of Century 21 Canada shares his best entrepreneurial advice

Written by ProfitGuide

Founder, Century 21 Canada Ltd., Vancouver. Age 71.

Career highlights

  • Leaves home at age 15 to join the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps, serving from 1954 to 1961.
  • In 1968, launches his first company, Edmonton-based Western Diversified Holdings International.
  • In 1976, purchases the Canadian rights to Century 21 Real Estate Ltd. for $100,000. The company has system-wide revenue of $9 billion and 450 franchises when he sells it in 1987.
  • Launches Samoth Capital Corp., a real estate investment firm, in 1984. Serves as chairman and CEO of what’s now known as Sterling Centrecorp Inc. until 2001.
  • In 1998, wins the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award, Pacific Region.
  • Turns to social entrepreneurship after the suicide of his son, Todd, in 2000. In 2002, Thomas launches LifePilot, which empowers people to have fulfilling lives and reach their highest potential. In 2008, he helps creates the Thomas Institute for Values-Based Leadership at Royal Roads University to help future leaders put their values into action.
What do you look for in a business opportunity?
What I’ve always done ended up being articulated in the book Blue Ocean Strategy. I look for companies where there’s a new concept or new industry that hasn’t been figured out yet, like Century 21 was. I feel you’ve got about 15 years to swim in that blue ocean before you then become like the rest of them—your competitors, your copiers.
To what habits or behaviours do you credit your success in business?
My values, my focus, my visualization, my inspiration and the ability to reflect back upon my successes. But values are the key thing. When you know what your values are, you can always fall back on them. My key values are health, happiness, freedom and integrity. I make sure that nothing I do conflicts with any of those.
You’ve walked away from many potentially lucrative business deals because you didn’t like the ethics of the people involved. Why is that?
The most important ingredient in any business deal is the people that you’re involved with. And integrity is one of my values, so I can never compromise that value. I have walked away many times. You can usually tell during the courtship period if you’re dealing with the kind of people you want to ride the river with. It’s not important that we have the same values, but I need to understand what their values are. Their values must be out there to see. If they’re complementary or at least not in conflict with mine, I might do business with them.
Entrepreneurs are easily distracted by other people’s demands on their time. What’s your secret for achieving focus?
I focus by being goal-oriented. I have a thing that I call my MITs—my “most important things”—and I move them ahead every single day. When I get up in the morning, they’re the first thing I look at so I know what I’m doing that day. I set a goal, and that goal then becomes my focus. But equally important is delegation. It’s one of the most critical things I do. One of my virtual mentors is John F. Kennedy, so I ask myself: “Would John F. Kennedy be doing this today?” And if he wouldn’t do it, then I shouldn’t be doing it, either. Should I be making this speech, should I be giving this interview, should I be developing this business plan? Should I be writing this e-mail? Should I be picking up my ballpoint pen refill? Should I get my dry cleaning? It goes on and on. Anything that you’re doing, if you can delegate it, then you should—even if you need to hire an assistant.
You served in the Canadian military. What did you learn in the army that later helped you with business?
I learned discipline. Take shooting, for example. I was a very good marksman, and I got that way through discipline—by going to the range and just shooting, shooting, shooting. You get better by working hard. The other thing I learned is the art of listening. Listening is a very important thing. And also to listen to and respect other people’s opinions, no matter who they are, what race they are, what creed they are. If they had a pip on their shoulder, you listened to them because they had the right to talk. It didn’t mean you agreed with them, but you had to listen. So, now, when I’m with a new employee or talking to someone about their business or mentoring somebody, I listen to them. And by listening carefully, I think a good leader can see the correct way to implement a plan, because they’ve gotten enough proper input.
How do you facilitate high employee performance?
I do it with communication and by having a passion for what I do. I’m doing charity work right now, and my director of non-profits reported to me this week to tell me how unbelievably well our charity drive is going. He wanted to share that. He wanted to know he’s recognized. That’s what most people want—they want to be appreciated. It’s not complicated. I’m not a sophisticated business-school guy. I’m a very uncomplicated, simple guy who communicates well with my stakeholders.
What is your advice for aspiring philanthropists who want to give back but haven’t “made it” financially?
I’ve coined a saying about that: “When you have time, you give time. When you have money, you give money. When you have time and money, you give both.” I’ve always spent time giving back. It gives you an incredibly good feeling of being needed and wanted. I would tell business owners that they might not have money, but they probably do have time to give. Still, they should give their time as carefully as they give their money.
Now that you’re spending so much time giving back, what, if anything, do you miss about being in business?
At first, I missed being part of Century 21. After I sold it, a few years out, when I was introducing myself, I’d say, “I’m Peter Thomas. I used to be chairman of Century 21.” Now, I don’t anymore. I just say, “Hi, I’m Peter Thomas.” It took me a bit of time to get to that point.
What was your biggest business failure, and how did you pull through it?
It was regarding a partnership with [Vancouver real-estate king and venture capitalist] Nelson Skalbania, back in the 1980s. We borrowed $25 million from the credit union and I signed unlimited personal guarantees on it. I borrowed all that money, but I didn’t have the authority to spend it. I let Nelson spend it. And it took me five years to get back to just even. I really could have lost it all. But I never felt that I had failed. I felt stupid that I would let myself get into that situation, but I never felt personal failure. Health is my No. 1 value, so while I was going through that, I ran the New York Marathon, I learned to fly a helicopter and I wrote a book. I did positive things to remind myself that I wasn’t a loser.
Based on your experience, what’s your advice for choosing a business partner?Know what their values are. Mutual respect. A sense of humour. An open mind. And a history of not being litigious.

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