GENERAL ARTICLES

THOMSON MOVES FAST

His radio-newspaper holdings stretch from Timmins to Jamaica ... and if he knew Attlee better he'd probably try to buy the BBC

BRUCE McLEOD August 1 1946
GENERAL ARTICLES

THOMSON MOVES FAST

His radio-newspaper holdings stretch from Timmins to Jamaica ... and if he knew Attlee better he'd probably try to buy the BBC

BRUCE McLEOD August 1 1946

THOMSON MOVES FAST

GENERAL ARTICLES

BRUCE McLEOD

WHEN it comes to pulling rabbits out of a silk hat, Blackstone may be quite a guy. But that’s just kid stuff for 51-year-old Roy Herbert Thomson, a fast-talking Torontonian who traded mumbo jumbo for supersalesmanship, a magic wand for a fountain pen and proceeded to pull hundreds of thousands of dollars literally out of thin air.

Until a few years ago, when he streamlined his five-feet ten from a lumpy 250 pounds to a cosy 185, this magician of big business deals was built somewhat along the lines of a Bartlett pear. In those days, as he squinted with nearsighted eyes from behind thick lenses or tugged with nervous fingers at a tight collar, Thomson looked no more impressive than the average businessman who hopes his customers will outnumber his creditors. Nobody, except maybe Thomson himself, would have bet that within a decade he would become a big voice in the Canadian radio and newspaper scene.

Today he directs the destinies of six newspapers and three radio stations in Canada and has an interest in two other Canadian stations. He also owns the controlling interest in the only radio station in British Guiana, and has a newspaper in Jamaica.

He admits he would like to own a metropolitan daily, and rumor has it he wants to buy the Toronto Evening Telegram. Of this he says: “Every time somebody is reported trying to buy something, I get blamed for it.” But there’s reason for it. A friend said recently: “He’d try to buy the BBC if he knew Attlee a little better.”

His first love was radio, and he’d be buying more

Canadian radio stations except for a recommendation by the House of Commons Radio Committee against multiple ownership of stations. Thomson promptly switched his buying interest to the publishing field. In July, 1944, he closed a “milliondollar” deal for four southern Ontario dailies—the Woodstock Sentinel-Review, Galt Reporter, Sarnia Canadian Observer and the Welland-Port Colborne Tribune. “Million-dollar deal” is what Thomson called it, and he has since declared in print that he wouldn’t resell for that amount; men who know the business say he likely bought the four for about $850,000.

In 1945 he bought another northern paper, the Kirkland Lake Northern News, a weekly which he plans to turn into a daily. His other paper is the Daily Press in Timmins, Ont. His own radio stations are in North Bay, Timmins and Kirkland Lake, and he holds interests in stations in Peterborough and Kingston.

His swift climb from obscurity to fame and fortune hasn’t changed Thomson much. He still has the double chins and the same quick boyish grin that proved so helpful when first wooing

His radio-newspaper holdings stretch from Timmins to Jamaica ... and if he knew Attlee better he'd probably try to buy the BBC

bankers a dozen years ago. There are few lines in the broad forehead that juts out over myopic, watery-blue eyes, and despite the greying hair fringing his temples he looks years younger than his 51—and it’s not because he made his fortune the easy way.

There were times, back in 1931, when Thomson had to think twice before financing himself a new overcoat. Today his annual income runs into six figures, and some say he’s worth perhaps $2,000,000, although other estimates say that the real value—credits minus debits—would be closer to $500,000. Banks which once arched an eyebrow at his cheques now vie with one another for the privilege of loaning him money. And the fact that he built much of this fortune during the great depression makes his feat all the more remarkable.

Thomson estimates his own worth this way: “My credit is limitless. I know if I ever need any money I haven’t already got, I can get it.”

He attributes his success to hard work, a passion for dickering and an unshakeable resolve to make a million. “And maybe,” he admits, “I was lucky when I needed to be lucky.”

Born in Toronto in 1894, Thomson received what education he got at Church Street School and Jarvis Street Collegiate. He quit school at 14, took a short course in bookkeeping and shorthand— and went job hunting. He found an opening with a Toronto manufacturer, and by the time he was 21 headed the firm’s Toronto sales office. In 1917 he married Edna Irvine, Drayton, Ont. They have three children—a son Kenneth, now at Cambridge, and two daughters, Irma and Audrey.

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the Army, Thomson left Toronto in 1919 for Holdfast, Sask., to farm. He still doesn’t know what made him think he wanted to be a farmer, and it took less than a year to realize the “feel of the good earth” was not for him.

“It cost me money,” he recollects ruefully. “That convinced me farming was not my forte.”

Returning to the East in 1920 he

bought a small automotive wholesale supply business in Toronto; shifted operations to Ottawa, in partnership with his brother, and later opened a branch in North Bay under the name of Northern Supplies. Here he also became a distributor for a well-known make of radio receiving set. From his start in 1920 to the opening of the North Bay branch took about 10 years.

At the start of the thirties radio was still somewhat of a novelty in Northern Ontario. Reception was poor; static 1

heavy. Southern stations were weak and far off. Thomson’s selling technique was to place a radio in a home and leave it for several days. If reception was good, he usually made a sale. If reception was poor—and that was often—he’d get the set back.

So in 1931 he stole a page from Mohammed’s book. If radio wouldn’t come to him, he’d go get radio. While certain people made rude noises with their lips, Thomson prepared to open his first broadcasting station in the Gateway City, financing it shoestring style on his own company, Northern Supplies.

The first days of the new North Bay station, CFCH, were hectic. The broadcasting studio was on one floor and the control room two floors above. There was no visual communication between announcers and operators and no buzzer system.

“The engineer used to knock on the water pipes,” laughs Thomson, “to signal whether a mike was alive or dead. And listeners had quite a time twisting their dials trying to follow CFCH as its frequency wandered up and down the kilocycles.”

In the beginning he wondered if maybe he shouldn’t have stayed on the farm. Listeners were critical. Businessmen sceptical. Creditors were far from tolerant. But Thomson dug in his toes and stuck it out. He sold time. He wrote programs. He announced. He spent many hours in the control room, learning what made a transmitter tick.

Recalls Jack Barnaby, then chief engineer for Northern Broadcasting Company: “He could ask more ques-

tions in 30 minutes than you could shake a condenser at.” It wasn’t long before Thomson could sit down with an engineer and talk as if he had cut his first tooth on a 100-watt power tube.

Employees in those early days never could be sure they would get their money on paydays. Sometimes a bank teller wouldn’t even give them a chance to present their Northern Broadcasting cheques. He’d spot them entering the bank and simply shake his head. So they’d hustle to a little tearoom near the studios, and the Greek proprietor would stick their cheques on a hook at the end of the soda fountain and hand them their money.

“I guess,” says one of Thomson’s first announcers, “you could say that little Greek was Thomson’s best banker.”

Once an announcer noticed the hook piled high with Thomson cheques. “Aren’t you worried about all that dough?” he asked the Greek.

“Nope,” shrugged the little fellow. “They’ll be good someday.” He was right, and today the Greek—still in business—is proud he recognized the great man on his way up.

New Voices Added

In 1933 Thomson opened his second radio station. This time it was CKGB, in Timmins, Ont., to finance which he talked several local citizens into putting up some modest capital. Soon Thomson, a familiar figure in an old camel-hair coat, battered hat and rumpled clothes, was commuting regularly up and down the T. and N. O. Railway which links North Bay and Timmins. On one of these jaunts he indulged in conversation with a stranger. Later the stranger asked a fellow traveller: “Who is that fat

fellow? He was so busy telling me he was going to make a million bucks, he forgot to introduce himself.”

A scant four months later Thomson launched his third radio venture— CJKL in Kirkland Lake. Again he went after anybody in town who had any money, sold several citizens (a

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doctor was the chief investor) into putting up money to float a Kirkland Lake branch of Northern Broadcasting. But the Thomson technique always called for his buying back such outside interests whenever he could, as the chain prospered, so that he always managed to remain the real power behind the company. Friends in the North call him “51% Thomson.”

The fact that his Timmins radio studios were over the offices of a defunct weekly newspaper probably accounted for Thomson’s debut as a publisher. One day, a year or so after he started activities in Timmins, more out of curiosity than anything else, he asked the owner how much he’d take for the paper. When told the price was $6,000, he agreed to buy.

“How much cash can you put up?” enquired the owner.

“Not a cent,” was Thomson’s bland reply. He offered 30 notes at $200 each and the deal was closed.

But publishing a weekly was too tame for the energetic Thomson. So he got 100 dimes and sent them to 100 small city dailies in Canada and the United States, requesting sample copies of their papers. He stacked the samples in his office and went through them column by column.

When he was through he called in his shop foreman, and said, “They haven’t got anything in these papers I can’t do. We’re going daily !”

But running a daily with only two linotypes, an old crock of a flat-bed press and an editorial staff of three turned out to be quite a chore. Thomson admits he often sweated blood. During visits to North Bay he’d hurry around to the shop of a small giveaway weekly and indulge in lengthy chats with the make-up man, the pressman and linotype operator. He even practiced setting type. Soon he knew the

lingo and could talk shop intelligently.

Today The Timmins Press is a monument to his aggressiveness. From a few hundred readers its circulation has boomed to more than 10,000, until today it ranks ninth among Ontario provincial dailies. Even a fire which swallowed up the building housing his Timmins radio and press ventures in 1938 failed to slow Thomson down. He raised $250,000 from wealthy Timmins friends and put up a new building which is now rated among the finest press and radio homes in Canada. Its modern architecture, streamlined offices, “floating” studios and lavish furnishings have made it a show place of the Gold Belt.

Competitors credit him with an amazing sense of timing, and say this is one big reason for his success. But often, while Thomson appears to be acting on the spur of the moment, he is only putting into action plans that have been simmering in his head for weeks.

Around Kirkland Lake they like to tell you how last year he bought The Northern News—a weekly in that gold town. According to the story, Thomson walked into the paper one day with a classified advertisement. He looked around the office, walked out, and the next day bought the paper. It was months, they say, before he went back for a good look at the place.

This is but one of many stories that have enhanced the Thomson legend in the north country, where many people consider him a man of mystery —a fact that confounds and often embarrasses Thomson, who, far from being mysterious, is often too outspoken about his plans. Actually, while the story about The Northern News is basically true, Thomson had been planning for months to buy the paper—and you can be sure he went over the

paper’s financial statement with a shrewd eye. Plans to convert it into a daily are already well-advanced.

The fact that the editor of The News has seen Thomson only once since he bought the paper is not unusual. He seldom writes memos and rarely interferes with the men in charge of his newspapers and radio stations. But he keeps a close eye on the balance sheet.

He thinks a newspaper’s greatest attractions are columns by well-known writers and its comic strips. He is an ardent follower of Li’l Abner and Donald Duck. He is a shrewd judge of what people like to hear on the air; keeps a radio in every room of his Elizabethan home in Weston, on the edge of Toronto.

Though a staunch Progressive Conservative at heart, he never tries to peddle his political views through the editorial pages of his papers. He prefers to keep them independent, and, though he has a phobia against Socialism, one of his papers carries a regular column by the CCF booster, Elmore Philpott.

Sales Conscious

Perhaps because he is a whiz of a salesman himself, he favors the business end of his projects over the editorial, has always paid salesmen best of his employees. A former announcer complains: “A crackpot who can sell is

considered more valuable by Thomson than the best program man, editor or office executive he ever had.”

This lack of appreciation for their creative abilities is resented by many of his nonsales employees, and at his radio stations the labor turnover is extremely high. “Thomson’s greatest ability,” says an impartial observer, “is the way he can keep good men working for him for less money than they are worth.” And it is a matter of record that many men who quit him often go back to work for him without quite realizing how they got talked into it.

Despite a reputation for poor pay (his pre-war announcers earned between $12 and $20 a week), Thomson rebukes criticism by claiming he has always paid as well as most other Canadian broadcasting companies. One thing his men do admit is that he’s an easy man to see. He likes to sit around and chat with his employees about their problems; has an uncanny ability to make men who work for him feel as though he is taking their advice.

He has always put a lot of faith in young men. One of his editors is only 23. Several of his radio managers were running his stations in their early 20’s. He sent his Timmins managing editor, 31-year-old Ed Capps, to Columbia School of Journalism, now has him editing his paper in Jamaica.

His passion for “horse trading” often crops up in his dealings with his staff. One day a reporter who owed Thomson money asked him for a raise so he could pay the loan back sooner. Thomson refused but said maybe they could make a deal. When the reporter left the office his debt had been wiped out but he had agreed to a cut in salary. His only comment was: “Well, it sounded like a good idea the way R. H. explained it.”

When asked what he thinks of company health and insurance schemes for employees, Thomson simply says, “That’s something we haven’t got around to yet.”

After fighting his way from the bottom to the top, he says the only people who really upset him are those who grumble about lack of opportunity. He says bluntly: “This country is full of opportunity. If I was 10 different people I could be mixed up in 10 times as many deals every day.”

Despite a horror of overweight, he

has a prodigious appetite. Once when he applied for insurance he was told he’d have to pay a high premium because of his weight. Thomson resolved to streamline himself. The day he started cutting his weight he walked into a Toronto tailoring shop with a set of measurements and ordered a suit for a certain date. The tailor was aghast. “You’ll never do it,” he protested.

“You make the suit,” Thomson rebuked him. “Leave the dieting to me!”

Came the promised day and Thomson returned to the shop, his clothes hanging on him like a tent. He was down to 184 pounds and the suit fit perfectly. He got the insurance. But today his clothes are getting snug again and his weight is well over the 200 mark.

Good clothes have long fascinated Thomson. A few years ago he’d walk into a radio station and show off a new suit with an enthusiastic, “Makes me look slimmer, doesn’t it? Cost me

$100.” This turned out to be poor psychology to use on an $18-a-week announcer who had just been refused a $2 raise. So he stopped doing it.

His chief interest in life outside of work, reading detective stories and eating fruit, is travel. He loves the sea and ships. He hates big cities; suffers from claustrophobia. In both his Timmins and Toronto offices there are giant windows behind his desk. Thomson says they help him to chase that “cooped-up” feeling. But people who know him say the windows are there because he thinks he can talk more convincingly with the light behind him — and streaming directly in the other fellow’s face.

But for all his wealth, his frankly stated affection for money, and his “unlimited credit,” he rarely carries or flashes a big roll of bills. Not long ago on a trip north he had to borrow money from one of his managers. He didn’t have enough with him to pay a $10 hotel bill.