Richest People

Canada’s Richest People 2015: The Life and Times of the Thomson family

The Thomsons’ wealth was built on a few visionary investments—and seemingly unstoppable drive

UPDATED for 2018!: Canada’s Richest People — The Top 25
David Thomson, Roy Thomson, Sherry Brydson, Peter Thomson

Left to right: David Thomson, Roy Thomson, Sherry Brydson, Peter Thomson (Brian Donogh/Winnipeg Sun/QMI; Bernard Weil/Toronto Star/Getty; George Pimentel; Mark Blinch/Reuters)

It’s easy to think of the Thomson family as a single entity, one that controls a massive amount of wealth in this country. After all, it’s not like Thomsons go out of their way to make themselves known. They stay out of the public eye, and when they can’t avoid it, they at least try to limit their exposure. David Thomson, chairman of Thomson Reuters, spent barely two minutes on a conference call announcing the merger between the two companies in 2007. While it’s no surprise the clan once again topped this year’s Rich 100, the family history in recent years has become truncated in its telling; few remember the business smarts that built the Thomson legend in the first place. Plus, for the first time, new information has come to light about those Thomsons who are not named Kenneth, David or Roy.

Everything started with Roy Thomson, the chubby, near-sighted son of a barber, born in Toronto in 1894. Roy was a driven and restless man eager to break from his humble roots. He tried his hand at farming in Saskatchewan, only to return to Toronto when he couldn’t make a go of it. In 1920, he launched a business with his brother, Carl, buying and selling auto parts. The venture flourished for a few years, before teetering on bankruptcy. Roy soon seized on a new opportunity. Radio technology was new and manufacturers needed energetic men like Roy to push units into Canadian homes. Hawking De Forest Crosley radios took him and his family (which by then included three children) to remote North Bay, Ont., where he hit a new snag. With such poor radio reception, residents had no use for radios. For Roy, the answer was simple: He’d start a radio station.

He started broadcasting under the call sign CFCH in 1931. This marks the beginning of the Thomson media empire. Roy proved a voracious acquirer of assets—first of other radio stations, and in 1934, a local daily in Timmins, Ont. Roy rolled up everything he could. When he outgrew Canada, he moved to the U.K. There, he bought Edinburgh’s The Scotsman newspaper, a TV station, and eventually the prestigious Sunday Times. He ran his properties with a strict eye on costs (like many wealthy people, Roy was a known penny-pincher). In 1964, his glasses impossibly thick by then, Roy was granted peerage by Queen Elizabeth II and given the title Baron Thomson of Fleet. The Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev once ribbed him on his wealth, telling him “You can’t take it with you.” To this, Roy quipped, “Then I’m not going.”

Even in his twilight years, Roy’s acquisitive nature prevailed. His empire, by the 1970s, consisted of insurance companies, travel agencies, trucking companies, and more. In Who Owns Canada Now, by Diane Francis, a former Thomson executive recounts a jaunt to Lebanon to check out a television station. Roy bought it, but also came back the proud owner of an orange grove. He began dabbling in North Sea oil. “Why, you may ask, do I go on seeking new opportunities like this at my time of life?” he wrote in his autobiography. It wasn’t for the money, he insisted. “I simply cannot comprehend how anyone of my temperature can enjoy his leisure cultivating dahlias or buying racehorses.”

When he died in 1976, the company was left to his only son, Ken, to take over. Ken was different from Roy in many ways. Ken was thoughtful and gentle instead of brash, measured instead of impulsive, and relied on advisers (such as John A. Tory, the lawyer and father of Toronto mayor-elect John H. Tory) instead of his gut. He also expanded the Thomson empire while undoing some of his father’s work. Under Ken, Thomson Corp. became less of a sprawling conglomerate—although Ken did buy and later sell Hudson’s Bay. The most striking example of change occurred in October 1995, when a wrecking ball smashed into the walls of the old Timmins Daily Press office. The paper was sold the following year.

Indeed, under Ken’s reign, the company sold off most of its newspaper assets, including the Times of London and the Sunday Times. (Many papers went to Conrad Black’s Hollinger Inc.) Ken believed the newspaper advertising market was heavily cyclical and tied to the economy. Seeking to insulate the firm from such swings, he focused on what he called “captive audiences.” The company zeroed in on high-priced, high-margin financial data, electronic databases, resources for the legal and medical industries and textbooks. In 1996, Thomson Corp. spent more than $3 billion on an American legal publishing firm, the biggest acquisition it had ever made. The Globe and Mail remained a Thomson asset, however, and still does today. “That’s sacred,” Ken told a reporter once. “As long as we have the Globe and Mail, we’re happy.”

Despite his canny sense of value, Ken was known as a reluctant businessman. He had to steel himself before appearances at annual general meetings, and his true passion was art. He donated nearly 2,000 works to the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2002. He was also a dog lover (one of the few times he spoke to this magazine was for a piece about dogs) and when he didn’t own one, Ken would spend time at the Toronto Humane Society walking the impounded pups. But he was a devoted and diligent worker. On the day he died in 2006, at age 82, he arrived early to his office like any other day.

His successor, David, had also been brought up in the company, working at family assets Zellers and Hudson’s Bay. After his father’s death, David wasted no time making his mark. He quickly ushered in the US$17.2 billion merger with Reuters Group, creating a news and information giant. The timing was terrible. During the recession that followed, the company’s primary clients—banks and other financial institutions—were shedding workers and curtailing spending. The company’s share price hasn’t returned to its 2007 high. David is often portrayed as somewhat aloof, showing up to board meetings in sneakers, munching sandwiches with small-time investors at AGMs instead of major stakeholders, and calling up the Reuters photo desk to chat photography, according to the Wall Street Journal. He, too, relies on advisors. For many years, Geoff Beattie served as president and CEO of the family’s holding company, Woodbridge Co. Ltd. He was replaced by David Binet in 2012. Today, David Thomson owns 14% of Woodbridge, as well as a personal holding company, Osmington, which owns real estate and a small stake in the Winnipeg Jets. His net worth is estimated $4.9 billion.

Despite the sluggish performance of the company post-merger, the future is looking brighter. Thomson Reuters’ flagship product is the Eikon, a high-powered data terminal for the financial industry. Its main competition is from Bloomberg L.P., whose own terminals are entrenched. But Thomson Reuters has steadily been making progress. The Eikon platform has more than 122,000 subscribers today, compared to just 45,000 in 2012. And net sales in the company’s financial and risk segment, which includes the Eikon, have been positive for the past two quarters, the first time the division has done so since 2011.

The problems in the division may prove to be no more than a temporary setback. Losing isn’t in the Thomson blood. As a young man, David articulated his thoughts on business success in a rare interview with Peter C. Newman: “I wish to prolong those inspired moments in life and see them continually manifested in all areas of endeavour,” he said. “My search is always to create new wealth.”