The Nation’s Business

Celebrating success— very, very privately

Peter C. Newman June 1 1998
The Nation’s Business

Celebrating success— very, very privately

Peter C. Newman June 1 1998

Celebrating success— very, very privately

The Nation’s Business

Peter C. Newman

Success has become a noisy affair, with public relations types waving news releases, halls of fame vying for candidates and everyone wanting a piece of the individual selected for attention. But there is success of a different kind. It flows from a long day’s journey into might, from the daily stewardship of doing one’s job and duty, quietly and well.

Last week, such an individual—John Tory, the surrogate CEO of Canada’s largest multinational, Thomson Corp.—retired after 43 years of guiding the firm’s business, from running a minor chain of up-country Ontario newspapers to a global media empire with a market capitalization of $27 billion.

Sitting down to write this tribute—and I knew him as well as any journalist—I realize just how self-effacing he really was. There is not that much to say about Tory, except to analyze the results of his remarkable tenure. Still, it’s an occasion worth marking.

A lawyer (and founding partner of Toronto’s Tory, Tory, DesLauriers & Binnington),

John Tory was circumspect about his true role in directing Thomson Corp., Canada’s largest multinational

Tory joined the Thomson family firm when Ken’s father, Roy, was still in charge and before his North Sea investment struck oil and endowed the enterprise with monumental cash flows. The relationship between Tory, now 68, who carried the title of deputy chairman of Thomson Corp., and Ken Thomson, its controlling shareholder, has always been shrouded in mystery. Their secluded offices divided the 25th floor of the Thomson Building in downtown Toronto—the elevators stopped on the 24th floor, with only vouchedfor visitors allowed up the extra floor.

Young Ken, as he’s known, even though he recently turned 74, has never made a secret of the fact that he prefers collecting art to collecting dividends. That meant he needed a superb chief operating officer to do most of the work. Almost everything that happened during his stewardship originated from Tory’s crowded desk, and anything that went wrong felt the weight of his advice and admonitions. Under their joint leadership, the Thomson company expanded from annual revenues of $725 million, when Ken took over in 1976, to $12.4 billion last year.

Owning 73 per cent of the shares in his company, Thomson has enjoyed the advantages of being able to act as a proprietor, so that he and Tory could wait out markets and not worry about meeting quarterly projections. A case in point was their acquisition in 1979 of the Hudson’s Bay Co. Its stock values didn’t climb back to their original purchase price for more than a decade. At first, the stores were so badly organized that merchandise was strewn all over the aisles. ‘There’s a Bay buyer coming in this afternoon to see our new line,” a Toronto sales manager of a fashion supply house told his staff at the time. “Let’s lay it out on the floor so

she’ll know what it will look like when it gets into the stores.” Despite these and other serious problems, there was no thought of liquidating the investment. “We never have to keep looking over our shoulders,” Tory once told me. “Even when we make major acquisitions that have an initially negative impact on our profitability, in the longer term well have a broader base on which to grow. It’s really that simple.” By 1989, the Bay was back in the black, with profits of $122 million—up 250 per cent from the year before. Tory was the main architect of that turnaround.

Tory’s real function in the Thomson hierarchy was a source of constant conjecture, both within and without the organization. I interviewed him many times over the years, mostly off the record, but even then he said very little about his true function. “I’m a professional and I never worry about my image,” Tory told me. “As a businessperson you can have too high a profile and there’s no upside to that whatsoever.”

It is too easy to speculate that Tory was the brains behind Ken Thomson, because Thomson is smarter than that. Still, as president of the family’s private holding companies— quite apart from his dominant role in the operating company—Tory exercised enormous influence, and will continue to advise the family. He acted as a kind of secretary general of the multibillion-dollar corporate confederacy, prodding, solving, appointing, acquiring, divesting, troubleshooting, running the damn thing—but never quite making the ultimate decision by himself.

He is not an easy man to know. He has no small talk, loves to parse balance sheets instead of poems, and seemed quite happy to work 16-hour days. When a friend once asked him to go sailing, he discovered he didn’t own a suitable short-sleeved shirt. The centre of his life was, and is, his family—four super-bright children (one of them, John, is president of the publishing company that owns this magazine) and 15 grandchildren. He plays a mean After You’ve Gone on a barrelhouse piano and dabbles at bridge, but his most serious hobby is keeping up with his wife, Liz, Toronto’s shrewdest and busiest social animator.

Of Ken Thomson’s well-known stinginess, Tory would only say: “It’s an idiosyncrasy. It’s just very difficult for Ken to put his hand in his pocket and spend money. Yet, he’s extremely kind and generous. When we’re rushing to a meeting and we’re late, if he sees a blind man, he’ll stop and help him cross the street.”

Ken Thomson doesn’t just admire Tory, he worships the man. “If you take the best qualities of the best people in all the different fields of business and roll them into one—that’s John Tory,” he told me when I asked him about John. “It’s the same pleasure for him to work as it is for me to collect paintings. Above all, he’s got a great wife and family and good friends. They have fun together.”

That’s not a bad goodbye.