Newsrooms feed on rumour and skepticism, but even the most jaundiced journalists mellowed last September when the Thomson family bought back a majority interest in The Globe and Mail and trooped into a crowded meeting room to make the announcement. Along with David Thomson, the current chair of the global company, his mother Marilyn, and Geoff Beattie, the president of Woodbridge, the family holding company, there was a slight man with wispy hair and rimless spectacles. John A. Tory had officially retired a dozen years earlier as president of Woodbridge and deputy chair of Thomson, but his pivotal role in the organization demanded his presence at this triumphant moment. “It was a dream,” David Thomson said this week of the purchase.
In the days since John Tory died in Florida on April 2, 2011, following a stroke at age 81, pundits and reporters have been trying to assess the specific nature of his role in the Thomson empire. It began as long ago as 1955, when he first acted for Roy Thomson as a young lawyer in his own father's practice. Back then Thomson, a canny but cash-strapped entrepreneur, was struggling to come up with $1.5-million to buy The Sudbury Star newspaper. Today the family's wealth has grown to about $20-billion.
Tory's involvement accelerated in the late 1960s when Roy Thomson made a twofold appeal – help me grow the business and work with the next generation to provide my son with the same wise counsel you are giving me. Over the years, the two men, one of whom was old enough to be the father of the other, forged a kinship stronger than genetics. Tory worked even longer with Roy's son Ken Thomson, and developed an equally strong if different bond with him. He provided strategic support and guidance through the buying and shedding of North American assets, the honing of the gushing reserves from North Sea oil and the shaping of the nimble and focused information giant that the Thomson empire embodies today under David Thomson.
Ask six people to define Tory's role with the three generations of owners, over the past five decades, and you will receive as many answers: adviser, manager, strategist, confidante, tactician, mentor. David Thomson summed it up cogently: “He was the conscience of the company. I marvel that I was blessed to have the continuity and the alignment with someone so gifted and yet somebody I could share my lineage with.”
As a child of seven or eight in the mid-60s, Thomson remembers Tory “always being with his grandfather.” After Roy Thomson died suddenly of a stroke in 1976, Tory began working every day with Ken Thomson. They were more of an age, and they established a rapport, which David Thomson compares to the scoring duo of Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri on the Edmonton Oilers in the 1980s. The two men were both early risers so they would meet in the office and debate issues and ideas before the rest of the executives arrived.
Although short of stature, Tory was big of heart and huge of intellect. As discreet as he was sharp, as modest as he was learned, he never pushed a personal agenda or ambition in weighing options or solutions. Still, he had his foibles: He was a picky eater and he swallowed more than a dozen health food potions and vitamins every morning.
He loved his family, playing golf and working – even now there are stacks of papers in his office at Woodbridge dealing with the minutiae of tax law or corporate bylaws – and he often did both at the same time, covering documents with pencilled notations in his crabbed handwriting as he relaxed in an armchair surrounded by his wife and four children. “He liked to read his briefcase at night, while I liked to read books,” his twin brother James (Jim) Tory pointed out this week.
The two Torys had marched in lockstep from the moment they first drew breath, until John Tory left Tory, Tory Deslauriers and Binnington (now Torys LLP) when he was 43 and a joint senior partner with his brother. One of the first lawyers in Toronto to make the transition from practising corporate law to an active role in running a corporation, his reasons for leaving the firm that bore his name were complicated. He loved being a lawyer, but he loved his brother more. By embracing the adventure of working with Roy Thomson, he ensured that Torys would retain the Thomsons' legal business, and he obviated any professional jostling with his twin.