Lord Thomson of Fleet

Billionaire businessman and art collector who sold 'The Times' and 'Sunday Times' to Rupert Murdoch

Wednesday 01 April 2009 17:46

Kenneth Roy Thomson, businessman and art collector: born Toronto, Ontario 1 September 1923; staff, Timmins Daily Press 1947; staff, Galt Reporter 1948-50, general manager 1950-53; director of US and Canadian Operations, Thomson Newspapers (later Thomson Corporation) 1953-68, chairman 1978-2002; deputy chairman, Times Newspapers 1966-67, chairman 1968-70, co-president 1971-81; succeeded 1976 as second Baron Thomson of Fleet; married 1956 Marilyn Lavis (two sons, one daughter); died Toronto 12 June 2006.

Kenneth Thomson, the second Baron Thomson of Fleet, will be remembered in Britain as the man who sold The Times and The Sunday Times to Rupert Murdoch. In his native Canada, though, he was principally known as the country's wealthiest man, a billionaire businessman and collector who spent a fortune on amassing valuable works of art. The Sunday Times Rich List 2006 named him as the 18th richest person in the world, worth £9.3bn.

He was the only son of Roy Thomson, a barber's son who built a chain of small-town newspapers in Canada and the United States before expanding into Britain in 1952, his 60th year, with the purchase of The Scotsman. Seven years later, he bought The Sunday Times and by the time of his death in 1976 he also owned The Times, along with a clutch of regional titles and a lucrative commercial television franchise. With substantial stakes in North Sea oil and the travel industry as well, Roy Thomson had become an important figure in British commerce and the media by 1964, when he was made a hereditary peer.

Kenneth inherited his father's peerage and a controlling shareholding in the burgeoning business empire. By far the most troublesome parts of his inheritance were The Times and Sunday Times which, like all the London-based national newspapers, were fighting a constant and debilitating battle against militant print-workers anxious to protect their status and privileges. They were especially resistant to the introduction of computerised typesetting, which would result in a severely reduced workforce.

Where his father had lived principally in London, Kenneth Thomson preferred to base himself in Toronto, because he felt more at home there. Although this suggested a lesser commitment to his British holdings, he initially expressed his determination to sustain The Sunday Times and The Times - with its substantial losses - if the industrial issue could be resolved. In 1978 he sanctioned the temporary closure of the two papers in an effort to bring the printers to heel. He agreed to continue paying journalists and other non-printing staff during the suspension, and was frustrated when the strong-arm tactics failed to produce the settlement he sought.

He could not understand why there was such a problem in introducing technology that had been standard in Canada and the US, and in much of the rest of the world, since the start of the decade. The stoppage lasted 50 weeks and cost the company £46m; and, when publication of the two titles resumed late in 1979, no real progress had been made towards the management's objectives.

After further industrial disruption, including a five-day strike by journalists, Thomson decided in 1981 to rid himself of Times Newspapers. He remained in Canada, leaving his London representatives to negotiate the sale to Rupert Murdoch, the Australian media magnate best known for publishing papers at the popular end of the market. After the deal was finalised Thomson, in an after-dinner speech, expressed understandable relief at getting the troublesome titles off his hands.

The sale of Times Newspapers marked the beginning of Thomson's gradual retreat from Britain. In 1989 the group gave up its holdings in North Sea oil and by the mid-Nineties had divested itself of its regional newspapers. In 1998 Thomson Travel went on the block. By the end of the millennium most of the newspapers in Canada and the US had also been sold, leaving the group to concentrate on on-line publishing and electronic data services, in which it is now a major global player.

Kenneth Thomson was born in Toronto in 1923 and educated at Upper Canada College. He spent a few months at the University of Toronto in 1942 before joining the Royal Canadian Air Force, serving in Britain first as an aircraft mechanic and then on the RCAF magazine Wings Abroad. After the Second World War he took a First in Law at St John's College, Cambridge.

He was never especially close to his father, who was away on business for long periods during the boy's formative years. In significant respects, the two men were very different. Where Roy was outgoing, hail-fellow-well-met, his son was diffident and studious. Fellow students remember him as a cold fish. The journalist Peter Newman described him as awkward and shambling, given to "bizarre thoughts". Some likened him to the cartoon character Mr Magoo.

All the same, there was never any doubt that he would join the family firm, with a view to assuming control when the time came. He began his apprenticeship as soon as he left university, working for some of the small Canadian papers in the group. In 1952 Roy, after the death of his wife Edna, bought The Scotsman and decided to base himself in Edinburgh, leaving Kenneth as president of the Canadian company. To the surprise of many, the young man belied his image and proved a competent and forward-looking executive. In 1956 he married Marilyn Lavis, a former model, and they had two sons and a daughter.

It was also in the 1950s that he began to develop his enthusiasm for art - an enthusiasm that would turn into something close to an obsession. It began when he discovered a taste for the paintings of Cornelius Krieghoff, a Dutch-born artist who moved to Canada in the 1840s and painted lively narrative pictures of life among the Indians and settlers in what is now Quebec. They appealed to Thomson's sense of his Canadian heritage. He amassed more than 200 of Krieghoff's pictures, some of which hang in the company's Toronto headquarters and others in a separate public art gallery that he established nearby in 1989. Over the years, the works have proved to be a shrewd investment.

His interest broadened to embrace other Canadian painters and he developed a taste for European ivory carvings from the 16th century and later. Among an eclectic range of other acquisitions is a large array of model ships. Four figurines belonging to him were stolen in 2004 from the Art Gallery of Ontario, to which he has bequeathed a large part of his collection. His elder son, David, who now heads the company, is also a keen art collector, although his taste is for modern abstracts.

Roy Thomson consulted Kenneth in 1966 before he made his bid for The Times, the oldest British national newspaper, which, while retaining its prestige as an institution, was finding it harder and harder to survive commercially. Both men knew that the paper would be a costly burden on the family's resources for some years - although they did not guess quite how costly. In his memoir, After I Was Sixty (1975), Roy wrote: "I was greatly moved that my son never questioned my decision, and wholeheartedly agreed with me in pouring away all those millions to save an ideal."

How wholeheartedly he agreed is open to question. It is probable that he was motivated more by respect for his father than for the venerable newspaper that he had acquired. For, although Kenneth was now a senior executive, he found it hard to escape from the paternal shadow. Roy was the public face of the Thomson Organisation and, even in his old age, it was he who took the key decisions; but as part of the Times deal he had to agree to take no part in the management of the newspaper himself. It was agreed that Sir William Haley, the retiring editor, would initially be chairman of Times Newspapers, and that Kenneth would succeed him.

Reluctantly, Kenneth agreed to move his family to London, but he was unhappy there and after three years he returned to Toronto. As his biographer, Vic Parsons, noted, he "had a studied apathy towards the trappings of British aristocracy". Roy was disappointed that his son did not share his enthusiasm for London society, and he did not always spare his feelings. Frank Giles, a former editor of The Sunday Times, told of a trip to China that he made with the two men in 1972. When they met the Prime Minister, Zhou Enlai, and other important officials, Roy would introduce the members of his party, explaining their roles, until he came to his son: "And this is my son Ken, who doesn't do anything."

On that same trip Kenneth Thomson revealed his essential decency and generosity. Another member of the group was Louis Heren, deputy editor of The Times, who later told how they were given a demonstration of the efficacy of acupuncture. Heren's son Patrick was partially disabled through having contracted polio as a child, and Thomson offered to pay for him to spend six months in China for treatment.

When Roy died, aged 82, in 1976, Kenneth consented to inherit the peerage because it was his father's wish, although he admitted that he was "somewhat uneasy" about assuming an honorific position in what was to him essentially a foreign country. He regarded himself as Canadian through and through. Canada was where he lived and was raising his family. He declared that he would not use the title Lord Thomson in North America: plain Mr Thomson would do.

That decision reflected his modest life style, his preference for simplicity - even frugality - over flamboyance. His art collection was almost his only extravagance, even if a substantial one. Eating out, he preferred undistinguished cafés to smart restaurants. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, he declared: "I live well. I don't want for the luxuries or material pleasures of life. But I don't smoke or drink. I don't like night-clubbing. I don't have a yacht and I don't race horses. Life's too short."

He was a keen golfer and fond of walking, especially with dogs. When his pet Wheaton terrier died he volunteered to walk the dogs from a nearby animal shelter (having first been required to take its stringent dog-walking course). "Dogs don't ask for much," he once said. "People are different. No matter how much they have, they always want more."

His father's death meant that Kenneth Thomson was in full control of the corporation, and he began to shape it towards his own rather than Roy's priorities. The sale of The Times and Sunday Times coincided with significant expansion in Canada. In 1979 the group acquired a controlling stake in the venerable Hudson's Bay Company, a major force in retailing. Next year saw the purchase of FP Publications, incorporating Canada's most important newspaper, the Globe and Mail of Toronto.

Thomson's progression from small-town papers into what was effectively the national Canadian press provoked the appointment of a royal commission to investigate whether the group was establishing a monopoly position in the media. Faced by evident hostility, Thomson eventually decided to limit further expansion in Canada and to concentrate on the US instead.

The sale of the North Sea oil interests in 1989 heralded the major changes that the group was to undergo in the ensuing decade. That same year the company's two operating arms, International Thomson and Thomson Newspapers, were merged into the Thomson Corporation. In 1995 most of the Canadian newspapers were sold to Conrad Black's Hollinger group. Within a few years Thomson's had become a £22bn giant in the field of electronic information, supplying financial, legal, medical and other specialised data.

Although he was very different in character from his father, Kenneth Thomson's management technique was similar. He appointed strong senior executives and left the detailed running of the businesses to them, concerning himself primarily with overall strategy but also with discouraging extravagance. Again like Roy, he never sought to intervene in the editorial content of his group's newspapers. He was less adept, though, at handling annual general meetings, being prone to stumbling and mis-speaking when faced with questions from shareholders.

After he turned 70 he gradually withdrew from the day-to-day running of the business, of which the family still owns around 70 per cent, and was succeeded as chairman by his son David.

Michael Leapman

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