MACLEAN’S INTERVIEWS

LORD THOMSON

January 1 1969
MACLEAN’S INTERVIEWS

LORD THOMSON

January 1 1969

LORD THOMSON

MACLEAN’S INTERVIEWS

Roy Herbert Thomson — as Canadians remember Lord Thomson of Fleet — is the possessor of 180 newspapers, 290 other companies and an estimated $300million. Legions of talented people in five continents depend upon him for their livelihood. He’s a prize diligently sought by the titled and nontitled hosts and hostesses of London where he now lives. Business people across the world look upon him as the phenomenon of the mid-century. Yet he is a lonely old man.

His health is good and he remains immune to poverty and failure; but, at 74, he cannot be long immune to slowing down, a slackening of the acquisitive pulse, to thoughts of retirement — and of death. These winter days Lord Thomson sits in Thomson House over the River Fleet and thinks about when retirement will come and how it will be. Here, in a conversation with Maclean’s correspondent Sterling G. Slappey, he reveals for the first time that he intends to spend his final years — and his final day — back home in Canada.

At the end, he wants to be in Toronto, where it all began for him on June 5, 1894. He would like to be buried not too far from Monteith Street where he was born; from Jarvis Street Collegiate where he got what little schooling he had; from the site of the old cordage company that paid him five dollars a week; from Union Station, where he caught a train for the north — a young man on his way to a job selling radios door to door, and to one of the world’s great business fortunes.

Maclean’s: Lord Thomson, do you feel nostalgia for Canada?

Lord Thomson: Oh, I like to go back to Canada, sure. There’s a home there. And I know so many people and I do feel nostalgia, certainly. Eventually, I’ll go back to Canada. I won’t die here in this country unless I die unexpectedly. I mean, if I retire, and that’s when my faculties fail me or my physical attributes give way on me, I will go back to Canada. I wouldn’t quit work and stay in this country; I’d go back there. Maclean’s: You must have loneliness for Canada, then?

Thomson: Well, it’s more than that. Look, I lived there until I was 59V4 years old. You don’t lightly forget that, do you? I mean, these were the things that I’ve been used to.

Maclean’s: Where are your closest friends in Canada — the people you are closest to, other than your son?

Thomson: I’m not very close to anybody except for the business. We do a lot of

“I am more acquisitive than ever. I like making money. But I don’t consider I've got money. I’ve got businesses”

entertaining in hotels and things like that. But I don’t go out nights with people and play cards with them. I just don’t have a lot of close personal friends. Maclean’s: Has your acquisitive urge died down?

Thomson: Not the slightest. I think I am more acquisitive today than I’ve ever been.

Maclean’s: How much were you worth when you reached middle age and what do you estimate you’re worth now? Thomson: I wasn’t worth very much then, not more than a few thousand. As to what I am worth now, I never give out that figure. You can figure it out for yourself by our holdings in the two main concerns we’ve got — 80 percent in Thomson Newspapers Limited in Canada and 78 percent of the Thomson Organization shares in Britain.

Maclean’s: You had a hard time during your early days. Tell us a bit about those times.

Thomson: They were difficult days certainly, because we never had any money. My education stopped at 14, when I had

to go to work. The last year of my education I spent at a business college in Toronto, learning shorthand, typing and a smattering of bookkeeping, and I paid my way by sweeping out the place at night and dusting the desks in the morning. I got used to hard work. I liked it and I was determined that I was going to be successful. I knew that if I didn’t make money I couldn’t have a family and I couldn’t do the things in life that I felt I had to do.

Maclean’s: Did you once work all day to sell a one-dollar ad?

Thomson: I don’t know whether that’s an exaggeration, but I worked awful hard. A dollar was a pretty good thing, I can tell you. I still work pretty hard to make a few dollars. I like making money.

Maclean’s: Did it ever occur to you that you might not be successful?

Thomson: I never had the slightest

doubt. I believed the old Salvation Army slogan: “You can be down but you’re never out.” I’ve had lots of failures and I think that from my failures I learned more than from my successes. My failures have stood me in good stead. Maclean’s: You once said you would be a millionaire by the time you were 30, didn’t you?

Thomson: Yes, but I didn’t quite make it. I was a bit delayed. I was 55. But

what’s 25 years?

Maclean’s: You once said owning a television station was like printing money. What do you think now?

Thomson: I said that about Scottish Television. In two years I was making five million dollars out of that station. Well, I said that was as good as a government license to print money. It might have been a bit injudicious to say so. But it was certainly the truth. Maclean’s: Do you still ride tourist class on transAtlantic planes?

Thomson: Yes.

Maclean’s: Do you still weigh your luggage before you leave home so you can avoid paying excess-baggage charges? Thomson: I do. It would greatly offend my sense of what’s proper to have to pay overweight.

Maclean’s: How much do you usually pay for breakfast when you’re away from home?

Thomson: I don’t eat often in hotel dining rooms. I eat in the cafeteria. I don’t want to sit in a big dining room and have three or four people waiting on me.

Maclean’s: Do you think the Canadian and U.S. governments should reward the elite with titles?

Continued on page 73

THOMSON from page 12

“I don’t believe there’s such a thing as luck. Luck is opportunity seized. I don’t miss many opportunities”

Thomson: I think it would be admirable. The thing is this: In Canada and the U.S. they all chase after degrees in a university, don’t they? What the hell’s the difference? They put titles after their names instead of in front, you see. I don’t think it makes any difference. Look, no one can make a very good case for hereditary titles in a democracy. But it’s damned nice to have one. At the same time you can’t raise much of an argument about knighthoods, and that sort of thing, that die with you. I think it’s a mark of distinction for something you’ve accomplished and it should be available. I think it would add color to life and it would be a reward for people who may not have had financial rewards for things they’ve done.

Maclean’s: Your title is hereditary, isn’t it?

Thomson: Yes.

Maclean’s: What do you think about becoming Lord Thomson of Fleet? Wouldn’t you rather be Lord Thomson of Toronto?

Thomson: I asked for that title and they wouldn’t let me have it. The Canadian government wouldn’t approve it. And the Canadian government really had nothing to do with it.

Maclean’s: Do you ever expect to be Governor General of Canada? Thomson: I was offered that. At least, I was told that I would be by Diefenbaker. But he wasn’t in office when the vacancy occurred. He said he would give it to me three times and I’ve got evidence about it. I can ring the people that heard him say it. However, I’m glad it didn’t happen now. It would have been pretty nice to be born and bred poor in a country and end up the Governor General. It intrigued me and I certainly would have accepted it at the time. But I wouldn’t accept it today, not that there’s any chance of getting it. I don't think now I could stand the ceremony. And you have to divorce yourself from business; arid that would make me very unhappy.

Maclean’s: How do you get on with Pierre Trudeau?

Thomson: Never met him. I wouldn’t have voted for him in the election, but I’m not at all sure that I wouldn’t vote for him now. I liked the way he ran his campaign. He promised Quebec nothing and yet he carried them with him. And he’s cut out his winter work. He said we can’t afford it. In other words, he looks as if he can make decisions and stick to them. Naturally, I’m a Tory and I would have preferred a Tory. I was concerned over the fact that Trudeau had so little experience. But for my money he is do-

ing all right and I hope he keeps it up. Maclean’s: Is your favorite reading still balance sheets?

Thomson: I like to read balance sheets even when the money’s not mine. They intrigue me. But my favorite reading is whodunits. I read dozens. The boys all furnish me with a batch every week. Escapism.

Maclean’s: Has it stung you when Canadians criticized you and said you had a cash register for a heart?

Thomson: It doesn’t make a bit of difference to me. I just console myself by saying it’s jealousy. There isn’t one of them who can get a title and they all would bloody well like to have one. Maclean’s: Now that you’ve got all of this money, are you happy?

Thomson: Very happy. I should be very unhappy if I didn’t have it. But I don’t use much money. I don’t consider I’ve got money. J consider I’ve got businesses. Maclean’s: What do you like to hear said about yourself?

Thomson: The best compliment that could be paid me is on my business ability.

Maclean’s: If somebody said Thomson is a hell of a businessman, you’d like that? Thomson: I’d like that more than anything else.

Maclean’s: How do you spend your spare time?

Thomson: I don’t have a lot. I live in the country and I go home on the Underground — out to Uxbridge and my man picks me up there. Often I don’t go home until eight o’clock and I get up at seven. I read the papers going out. I read the Toronto papers one day a week when they get to me — a week’s supply at once. And I read whodunits. I go to bed at 11.

Maclean’s: Do you see all the papers you own?

Thomson: There are some I’ve never seen.

Maclean’s: Did you have more fun when you were owing money to a lot of banks in Canada than you’re having these days? Thomson: I owe banks more today than I ever owed. I have a capacity not to carry troubles home with me. I don’t worry. God, if I wanted to worry, I’ve got lots to worry about. So what if I lose a deal, if I lose a few million dollars — I don’t even know about it. So, what’s the difference?

Maclean’s: What’s in your mind about retirement?

Thomson: It’s inevitably going to come. I’ve always talked about having another five years, but I don’t know about that. Maclean’s: You mean each year you’ve said that?

Thomson: Yes, but there may not be [pause] — but I am trying to cut down a little on my work, my night work. Now tonight I have to go to a cocktail party and then a dinner. Later this afternoon I have a meeting with the Finance Minister of Trinidad. I went to lunch with the Finance Minister of Jamaica. I don’t even know whose cocktail party it is I go to tonight. I have dinner with the Prime Minister of Barbados. I’ve had as many as four cocktail parties and a

dinner in one night. Often three. It’s hard work. I don’t drink — I sometimes take a sip. But even just appearing and standing around talking is work. Mind you, it’s good work to do. It’s valuable. Ideas. Deals. You see?

Maclean’s: What was the best piece of luck you’ve had?

Thomson: I don’t believe there’s such a thing. Luck is an opportunity seized. If we look back we can recognize opportunities that if we’d taken them, we’d have been successful, made money. I think if I deserve any credit it’s that I don’t miss many opportunities. Why? I’m awfully keen to find them, that’s why. Maclean’s: What would you give for the Toronto Globe and Mail?

Thomson: Ten or 12 years ago I bid $9,105,000 for it and I was a million short. I should have bid more, and I would pay more now. At the time I just didn’t have the money and I couldn’t get it. If I could have, I would have bid it. In my opinion the Globe and Mail is the best newspaper in Canada. I like it very much. You know, Maclean’s ought to give consideration to selling their business to me.

Maclean’s: Didn’t you once try to buy Pravda from Khrushchov?

Thomson: When I landed in Moscow in 1962, they had a whole delegation waiting for me at the airport, and they had TV cameras and reporters. They asked what I was doing there. I said I was trying to buy Pravda and Izvestia. They didn’t think that was very funny. Maclean’s: How much would you give for the New York Times?

Thomson: Oh, gee, I’d give a hell of a lot. I think I’d mortgage my soul. In many respects it’s the premier newspaper of the world. I will say this about our London Times: I think that of all the newspapers that represent their country best, the London Times does it best. In many parts of the world the London Times is Britain. It’s the flag. Now the New York Times doesn’t represent the United States like the London Times represents Britain. So, in many respects our London Times is preeminent. It’s getting better, too.

Maclean’s Where is it hardest to make money: the U.S., Britain or Canada? Thomson: We haven’t found it very difficult making money any place. Maclean’s: What are two or three things you look for in a property?

Thomson: Look at the profit statement, see the operation, what they have been able to do. Look at the ad rate. Is it economic? Look at management. Have they got the sales effort? Adequate circulation? Then the big thing is the future. Is the market growing? In some areas of the country there is little growth. You can’t afford to pay through the nose for those properties there. You’ve got to discount the price.

Maclean’s: What do you think of U.S. and Canadian papers?

Thomson: I like Canadian and American papers. The only thing wrong with them is there’s too much advertising in them.

I was talking with Mr. Sulzberger of the New York Times recently and I told him his paper — it had 92 pages that day — had too much advertising. But, I said, I wish I had that problem. Mind you, I read many things in American and Canadian papers that I’ve never seen over here. There’s more to papers over there. Here, we boil things down and there’s a lot of advantage in doing that. But perhaps we lose something in the presentation. I have a great respect for the way they run their papers. I have no advice to offer.

THOMSON from page 73

Maclean’s: Why are you going in so heavily for U.S. properties?

Thomson: That’s where the money is. I have a great respect for the good old U.S.A., and I like the American people. We have been, in effect, foreigners going in there and we’ve been welcomed with open arms. They’re the most open-hearted people in the world. If you can do things better than they can, they’ll say, “Okay, go ahead and do it.”

Maclean’s: Can you see more Canadian and American customs being followed in the U.K. now?

Thomson: Without a doubt. Nearly all of the successful things I’ve done here

have been copied from Canada or America. Anything that goes over there almost without exception will go over here. It may take a lot of putting over until people get used to it. This is a country of customs, habit and tradition. People don’t want to change. When I went into the Scotsman and started to introduce some of these new things, I was shoving as hard as I could and everybody in the place was shoving back. Nobody wanted to change, everybody thought it’s all right the way it is. And I was the new proprietor, too. I remember when I first came over here I walked out of the Scotsman and up the street there’s a fruit shop, you see, a nice little girl behind the counter. And, there’s a big box of grapes. I like grapes, and so I said, “Gee, these look good. I’ll take two pounds, please.” She said, “They’re three shillings the pound.” She’s trying to protect me from my own rashness. This is salesmanship. Of course, you know the difference between rape and rapture, don’t you?

Maclean’s: No.

Thomson: Salesmanship. And always

keep that in mind. It’s very helpful.

Maclean’s: Do you feel that Americans and Canadians should be less ostentatious and more frugal?

Thomson: It's a common characteristic that when you’re flush with money, you’re more prodigal with it. I personally am not that way. I think it’s stupid to waste money. I’d sooner invest it and make it grow, and get rich.

Maclean’s: Do you count anyone a bigger champion of private enterprise than yourself?

Thomson: No. I think private enterprise is the way to run a business. Take nationalized industries. None of them makes money, unless they have a monopoly where they can charge what they like. If I owned all the electricity here I could charge what I like and I’d make a hell of a lot of money — I’d make more money than they’re making, I can assure you. And not charge as much either. But you can’t measure that business against private enterprise because there’s no competition. Of course, you shouldn’t have two telephone systems in a city so that you have to buy two telephones, have phones that don’t connect with other phones, some people on one line and others on the other line. There are some things in an area where there’s every justification for the government having control of the business or, alternatively, limiting the profit and having some control. In the Americas, we’ve got the highest standard of living in the world and that’s been brought about by the development of private enterprise. Maclean’s: Editorially, you leave your papers, TV and radio stations alone, don’t you?

Thomson: Yes, and I’ll tell you why. I have papers, for instance, in the southern United States where they practise segregation. A large measure of the people there believe in segregation a lot more than I believe in it. How could I possibly dictate an editorial policy? I think a newspaper must represent the people of the community. Even if the people are wrong, I think they’re entitled to their voice. And, if I lived in that community maybe I’d think the same — I don’t know, I hope I wouldn’t, but maybe I would. So, I feel there’s no possible way I can sit in one location and try to dictate editorial opinion to 180 newspapers all over the world. I believe that this should be left to the local editor. Maclean’s: Possibly the London Sunday Times is the best newspaper in the English language. Who gets the credit? Thomson: The credit largely rests with Dennis Hamilton. I think he’s the best editor in the world for a quality newspaper. He’s now moved on to the editorship of the two Times newspapers. The Sunday Times editor now is Harold Evans and he’s a very, very able boy. We’ve built a tremendously able staff. These fellows have been given their head. We don’t spare expenses to get the news and learn what’s going on, and to get the best articles and the best critics. So, perhaps I have a little bit of the credit for making the money available and seeing they have the freedom to do these things. □