Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Roy Thomson

I have a handful of heroes apart from my father, and one of them, partly because he reminds me of my grandfather James Faulkner, is Roy Thomson, later Lord Thomson of Fleet, the Toronto-born maverick entrepreneur who built a radio and newspaper empire from nothing in Canada, before crossing the Atlantic in 1951 to shake up the dynasty-dominated British newspaper publishing industry.

Thomson started with a radio station in Timmins, Ontario, where he took the microphone himself and gave the weather forecast by looking out the window; and ended up with what he thought of as the ultimate prize, the Times newspaper. His first British acquisition, though, was the intensely traditionalist – he might have said moribund – Scotsman (he later bought, among others, the Belfast Telegraph). The Scotsman was in some financial trouble, though hardly enough to make the approaches of this forward, straight talking, ‘My name’s Thomson – call me Roy!’ Canadian attractive or even palatable to the Edinburgh establishment, and the acquisition was painful and protracted.

In a law office off Charlotte Square, towards the end of purchase negotiations, Thomson sat on one side of the boardroom table in his trademark sky-blue suit. Opposite, formidably arrayed in black pinstripe, were the owners of the newspaper and their legal representatives. Buyer and seller were separated by £25,000 (around £250,000 today) and in an atmosphere of steely-eyed confrontation Thomson reached in his pocket and offered to toss for the difference. He may have had a twinkle in his eye but he was absolutely serious. I love that. Sadly, Thomson’s sudden-death offer was not appreciated and after a solitary, contemplative walk up and down Princes Street and round Charlotte Square, he ended up returning to the table and going the extra £25,000 — okay, a pragmatic maverick

Much earlier, as a young man in the 1920s Roy was entranced by an enormous hoarding put up by developers in a Toronto suburb, which had a picture of a man on a tractor, gazing westwards over untold miles of golden wheat. The caption proclaimed the riches to be found in the grain provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Myopic, slightly ungainly, inclined to carry weight and one hundred percent a child of the city, Roy nevertheless decided, looking at the man on the tractor, that it should have been him, and he threw himself into a hopelessly unsuccessful three-year experiment in farming which almost left him bankrupt. I love that too.
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