Skip to main content

On an ordinary June morning, Kenneth Thomson arrived at the office with one of his beloved dogs and sat at his desk surrounded by some of his favourite Group of Seven paintings on the walls. He got up and walked toward his secretary Lorraine King's office and collapsed with a fatal heart attack. It was about 7:45 a.m. In a year when he had lost two of his closest friends, Steve Stavro, former owner of Knob Hill Farms and the Toronto Maple Leafs, and art collector John Band, Mr. Thomson died as he had lived - quietly and without a fuss.

"This is a great loss," Phillip Crawley, publisher and chief executive officer of The Globe and Mail, said. "I worked for Ken Thomson for 30 years in two different stints, here and in England. I have great affection and respect for him both as a man and as a newspaperman after my own heart. He was a great supporter of The Globe and Mail."

A man of small economies and grand generosities, Ken Thomson was Canada's richest man and largest individual philanthropist. When he inherited the Thomson media empire in 1976, many thought that he was a pallid version of his father Roy Thomson, First Lord Thomson of Fleet. In fact, Mr. Thomson focused and refined the company, moving the crux of its operations back across the Atlantic to North America and transformed the corporation from a print based media conglomerate to a web-based electronic provider of information and services. In the process he increased the company's value exponentially from about $500-million (U.S.) in 1976 to roughly $29.3-billion.

Story continues below advertisement

"Thomson is the Google for the high-end professional user," Richard Harrington, chief executive officer of Thomson Corp said at the company's annual general meeting in May, 2005, referring to its range of deep databases and software products aimed at the medical, legal, financial and educational industries. A year later, Mr. Harrington was still watching Google closely, telling the company's annual general meeting in Toronto that while Google, and other Internet companies, cater primarily to a broad-based consumer market, Thomson supplies enhanced information largely to professions. "It's a different mindset and it's a different business model," he said after the meeting.

During his tenure, Ken Thomson sold off most of the company's newspaper holdings, including The Times and The Sunday Times, two prestigious but fractious and money losing newspapers, and acquired Canadian publications including The Globe and Mail, a local flagship with a national reach that had always eluded his father.

Roy Thomson was a gambler and an opportunist who loved making deals, an extrovert with an ego to match who was in his forties before he achieved financial success and almost 80 when he joined the North Sea oil and gas consortium that made him fabulously wealthy.

By contrast, his son Ken was shy, private, extremely modest and much more focused. He thought of himself as an owner more than an entrepreneur or an operator. Although he was keenly interested in business, his job, as he saw it, was to serve as steward of the empire he had inherited on behalf of the rest of his family and the shareholders in Thomson Corp. He often expressed pride in knowing how pleased his father would be if he could have seen how the value of the company grew under his tutelage.

"Ken truly was a builder," said Geoffrey Beattie, deputy chairman of Thomson. "In business, people are either traders or builders. Traders are looking for things and trying to move from opportunity to opportunity, whereas Ken was someone who saw opportunities, but more in the context of wanting to stay the course. He was not an impatient guy because he had tremendous confidence that if you keep doing good things, more good things will happen."

Shrewdness and the ability to distinguish between owning companies and running them were the characteristics father and son shared, according to John Tory, the lawyer who had worked for both of them for more than 50 years. Neither Thomson was a micro-manager; both encouraged consensus and risk-taking by their employees and that foster loyalty and commitment in their professional managers.

"He is less of an extrovert than his father, but on the question of support for professional management, Ken and his father were much the same," said Mr. Tory. "They both realized that you couldn't do everything yourself so you had to have good people and to provide them with really strong support and to trust them."

Story continues below advertisement

A case in point was Harold Evans, editor of The Sunday Times in Roy Thomson's day. "Lord Thomson was not a journalist," he wrote in a obituary article for his former boss in 1976, "but he was the best friend journalism ever had." Mr. Evans learned the true value of those words after Ken Thomson sold The Times Newspapers to Rupert Murdoch's company News International in 1981. Mr. Evans was made editor of The Times, but was forced out a year later by Mr. Murdoch.

Stories of Ken Thomson's frugality abound, from watching the parking meter run out before feeding it more coins, to sorting through the bargain bins for socks, to pushing a cart up and down the aisles checking the cost of produce in his local grocery store. Although he seemed unwilling to spend money on himself - his suits were serviceable rather than elegant - he was willing to dig deep to indulge his passion for Canadian and European art.

In the same way that he refined his family's business holdings, he pruned and buffed his collection of paintings by Cornelius Kreighoff, the Group of Seven and David Milne, among other artists, and his assemblage of European ceramics, ivory miniatures and other artifacts. It was in building this art collection that he created his personal legacy. "I like business," he once said, "but I feel the same way about art that my father felt about business." That wasn't strictly true.

"I remember when we were at about 90 newspapers and he said it would be marvellous if we could get to 100," John Tory remembered in an interview. "When we got to 100, we proudly said to him we now have 100 daily newspapers and he said the new goal is 200," he said with a laugh.

That anecdote illustrated one of the differences between the two men. Roy Thomson wanted to grow his business; the editorial content of the newspapers in his portfolio didn't matter nearly as much as the bottom line. What propelled Ken Thomson as a collector was a visceral reaction to something that pleased him aesthetically. As time passed he set about learning more about the artists he admired, studying their techniques and acquiring paintings that complemented each other, or demonstrated the range of a particular artist's work. Collecting for him was more than a hobby, it was a process of discovery and self-education.

Others have given away a greater percentage of their individual and corporate fortunes, but his personal gift to the Art Gallery of Ontario of more than 3,000 works of art plus $70-million (Canadian), is without precedent in Canadian history. The AGO addition is designed by Toronto-born architect Frank Geary. "He never chased the art world," said Mr. Beattie. "He pursued his art privately and passionately and collected things that meant a lot to him. That is why the most important part of the AGO project is to embody the life of a collector. That's different from saying "I have one of these and 12 of those and wait until people see how smart I was and what I did."

Story continues below advertisement

Mr. Thomson also amassed an unrivalled collection of ivory and boxwood carvings, detailed ship models and other unique objects. In 2002 he bought Sir Peter Paul Rubens's painting "Massacre of the Innocents" which is currently on loan to the National Gallery in London, England. "I call it an electrifying painting," he told The Globe in an interview. "How do you paint a painting like that - with such a gruesome subject - without it being totally off-putting. Its horror is obscured by its aesthetics. I find that extraordinary."

"I was very saddened to hear of the death of Ken Thomson," Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty told reporters on Monday. "And I first of all would like to extend my sympathies to his family and his friends. But let me say that Ontario and Ontarians are the better for his presence here and we owe him much both in terms of the leadership he brought to his business and for his tremendous devotion to arts and culture in our province."

Kenneth Roy Thomson was born on Isabella Street in Toronto on Sept. 1, 1923, the youngest child and only son of Roy and Edna (Irvine) Thomson. His mother was a farm girl from Guelph who had come to Toronto to work as a secretary. That's where she met her future husband, then a salesman for an industrial toweling company. Ken's older sister Irma (born 1918) died in 1966, his oldest sister Audrey (born July 6, 1917) is still alive.

His early years were far from luxurious as his father, the son of a barber, struggled to make enough money to feed his family and to pay the rent. The Thomsons moved to Ottawa in 1925, when Ken was 2, after the collapse of his father's auto-parts dealership. His father then got a job as a salesman of De Forest Crosley radios. They moved again in 1928 (when Ken was 5) to North Bay because Roy Thomson thought he could profit from the gold discoveries in Timmins and Kirkland Lake. Ken started school in North Bay. His father was away for days at a time travelling by train to Cobalt, New Liskeard, Timmins, Cochrane, Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie to sell radios, auto parts, washing-machines and refrigerators.

Susan Goldenberg described Ken Thomson's childhood as lonely in her 1984 book, The Thomson Empire. "He was quiet, not athletic, and his mother would select the youngsters to attend his birthday parties," she wrote.

"The early part of my life was extremely simple," he said in an interview in Saturday Night in 1980. "We didn't have a great deal of money. Nobody did. I can remember, for instance, in North Bay a fellow coming to the door and asking for a sandwich. And, you know it makes me wonder a bit about my own children. They have only known affluence. But my father went through quite a few years of learning."

Story continues below advertisement

In 1929, the Thomsons moved to a larger rented house in North Bay. Roy Thomson, ever the opportunist, was away even more often, desperately making deals in search of a financial stake and being totally preoccupied when he was home. "He was always busy with various projects, travelling the north, selling, arranging things. He would often come home late at night. My mother would try to keep his dinner warm. We all knew he was a big worker, but it was difficult sometimes."

Life wasn't all loneliness and watching his father read the newspaper - "every inch of it." When he talked about his childhood in North Bay in 2003, he described a spontaneous outdoor life of riding bicycles, exploring the woods and fishing for pickerel in the summers and skating on the frozen lake in winter. He credits those halcyon memories for his later fascination with Krieghoff and the Group of Seven.

It was his mother who kindled his appreciation in music and painting. "Art almost bemused my father," he said. "With music, the most serious thing he liked were the Strauss waltzes. He liked people like Irving Berlin. But even then, if you were driving in the car, he was always fishing for news on the dial, even though it was the same news on every station. You could say he was obsessed with it."

Selling radio parts was hampered by the dismal radio reception in Northern Ontario. Undaunted, Roy Thomson paid one dollar for a broadcasting license, bought a 50 watt transmitter on three months credit and started CFCH, his first radio station in North Bay in 1931. "I was eight years old and radios were still exciting things. All I really knew was that something big was going on in town and that Dad was at the middle of it all." Soon his father had bought radio station CKGB in Timmins and followed up that purchase by moving into print and acquiring the Timmins Press in 1934, the depths of the Depression.

The family moved back to Toronto in 1937 when Ken was 14. By then even he was aware that his father was "really rolling." He went to Upper Canada College, the elite private school, as a day boy. An average student, and definitely not a jock, he was not part of the "in" crowd. "I didn't give it much of a chance," he said later. I was a little bit different from the other guys." When he was 16, he worked as a disc jockey at CFCH for a summer.

He graduated from UCC in 1942 and registered that fall at the University of Toronto, but dropped out in Dec. 1942 to join the RCAF. He was 19 when he was shipped overseas. After working as an instrument mechanic, he was posted to London where he rewrote news articles for an Air Force magazine called Wings Abroad.

After the war, he took a degree in Economics and Law at St. John's College, Cambridge University. Back in Canada, he began learning his father's business from the bottom up, working as a cub reporter at the Timmins Daily Press in 1947. A year later he went to Galt (now Cambridge) as an advertising salesman for the Daily Reporter, before serving as general manager of the newspaper from 1950 to 1953. On weekends he would drive to the family home his father had bought in 1947 (when Ken was 24) in Port Credit, about 112 kilometres away. This was the first house the Thomsons had ever owned and it remained the centre of family activities until Mr. Thomson's mother Edna died in Florida in 1952. After her death Roy Thomson made the decision to relocate to Scotland.

Even before he moved to Scotland in 1954, he had begun the English acquisitions that would include The Scotsman (1953) Scottish television in 1957 (a franchise that he would later equate with "a licence to print money") and an interest in North Sea oil and gas. (In 1971 when Roy Thomson joined the consortium, oil sold for less than a dollar a barrel; on his death five years later it was close to $30).

Ken Thomson stayed in Toronto and succeeded his father as president and chairman of Thomson Newspapers. At the time, the company controlled 24 dailies and eight weekly newspapers in Canada and 22 dailies and six weeklies in the United States.

These were the years when Mr. Thomson made his first forays into collecting, scouring shops in Chinatown in Toronto for carvings and curios. He moved on to genre paintings, buying his first Krieghoff in 1950, and then to carved English portrait busts. But it was not until he met Herman Baer, an antique dealer in London, that his collecting became more serious.

A 17th-century ivory-and-ebony crucifix in the window of Mr. Baer's store drew him inside one day in 1959. "Hermann let me hold things in my hand," Thomson told The Globe in 2003. "That was very important. He showed me some things, beautiful things, but he told me I was not yet ready for them. He was showing them, he said, to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford."

Two of the objects he cradled in his hands that day - a boxwood Madonna and Child and a carved ivory depiction of Saint George Slaying the Dragon, are now in the Thomson collection, as is the crucifix.

It was Mr. Baer who helped Thomson refine his tastes, encouraging him to delve boldly into his pursuit of ivory and boxwood carvings, baroque goblets, enamels, miniature portraits and memento mori. When Baer died in 1977, Thomson made some of his most significant acquisitions from his estate.

About the time he was acquiring the beginnings of his art collection, he met Marilyn Lavis, a model whose picture he had seen in an Eaton's catalogue. They married in 1956 and now have two sons David, who was born in 1957, Peter, who followed in 1965 and a daughter Lesley Lynn, now known as Taylor in 1959.

In 1964 Roy Thomson gave up his Canadian citizenship in order to receive a hereditary British title from the Queen in the New Year's Honours List. He became the Rt. Hon. Lord of Fleet of Northbridge in the City of Edinburgh. The next year, Thomson Newspapers became a public company in Canada and Thomson Travel was created in the United Kingdom. Two years later Roy Thomson bought The Times of London and merged that debt-ridden colossus with The Sunday Times, which he had acquired in 1959. He announced that his son would join the board of directors as chairman. Ken moved his family to London. Lord Francis-Williams, who had worked as press adviser to Clement Atlee, told The Globe in 1967, that: "The younger man is clearly destined to take over fully, and the sooner we in Britain have a chance to size him up the better."

Meanwhile Ken Thomson had built up his Krieghoff collection to nearly 20 canvasses and realized that his interest in the painter had become a passion. In 1966, the same year his father bought The Times, he "made a decision to go strongly for Krieghoffs. I changed from a casual acquirer to an aggressive collector."

While the British were checking out Ken, his father was expanding and diversifying the family's assets. By 1971, through their holding companies, The Thomson Equitable Corporation and the Woodbridge Company, the family owned 78 per cent of their British arm, the Thomson Organization and 77 per cent of their North American company, Thomson Newspapers, with holdings worth $333-million. "It's done this way so that the debts of one will never become the obligations of the other," the elder Thomson explained to The Financial Post in 1971.

Roy Thomson died Aug. 4, 1976 after a stroke. The company, which was worth approximately $500-million (U.S.), was publishing 110 daily newspapers in North America. Ken Thomson became Chairman of the family's interests and the second Lord Thomson of Fleet and Northbridge. He only used the title when he was in the United Kingdom and he never sat in the House of Lords. "In London I'm Lord Thomson, in Toronto I'm Ken. I have two sets of Christmas cards and two sets of stationery. You might say I'm having my cake and eating it too. I'm honouring a promise to my father by being Lord Thomson, and at the same time I can just be Ken," he explained at the time.

"Roy was more the entrepreneur, the tycoon, the guy who saw opportunities and propelled the business beyond anything else," said Mr. Beattie. "Ken might have had more of those characteristics if that is what the situation called for, but the fact is that when Ken took over after his dad died, there was a reasonably significant estate which had been left under a certain structure. Ken immediately identified that the future was going to be about trust and stewardship and patience and it wasn't about Ken being able to go off with the assets and fulfill his own dream of being an entrepreneur. These were his dad's assets. 'Everything we have today,' Ken would say, 'was because of my father."

Immediately after his succession, Ken Thomson wrote to shareholders reassuring them that their investment was safe because of the quality and dedication of the people running the myriad Thomson companies. "Successful businesses are sustained by people - men and women who contribute their time, their skill, their energy and their ideas to the development of a living, breathing, expanding enterprise....Without them no business amounts to more than a collection of buildings, machines and paper assets."

Within two years of his father's death, Mr. Thomson began shifting the company's focus to North America. The International Thomson Organization was formed with its headquarters in Toronto and two main operating subsidiaries in the United Kingdom and the United States. John Tory became deputy chairman. Instead of acquiring newspapers, as he had done under Roy Thomson, he was seeking out specialized information companies.

Back in London, Times Newspapers were bogged down in labour disputes and wildcat strikes. As Mr. Thomson said later, "The labour situation was hopeless at the time. If you had a chapel [a trade union branch]of six people and one said he had a headache and wasn't going to work that night a thousand would join him." Eventually the owners suspended publication of both The Times and The Sunday Times on Dec. 1, 1978.

The lockout continued for almost a year and cost the company nearly 70 million pounds. As Mr. Thomson said later, "the lockout was a bit of a disaster. You don't go into something unless you can see how it's going to come out. We did when we couldn't. Our problem was that we paid the journalists throughout and so nobody believed us when we said we would close the papers for good. If we were serious about shutting down completely then why were we paying the journalists? There was no realism about our handling of the dispute."

In October, 1980, the company put the newspapers up for sale, saying they would shut down if a buyer didn't come forward by a pre-arranged date. The Australian media magnate Rupert Murdoch made a low but successful offer of 14 million pounds on Feb. 13, 1981. Mr. Thomson insisted he never regretted selling The Times. "...we had to get on with our own lives and we did and rebuilt the Company. I'm sure if my father came back today he would understand..."

The bruising from the sale of The Times was soothed by the acquisition of FP Publications Ltd. in Canada in 1980 with its flagship newspaper, The Globe and Mail, as well as the Winnipeg Free Press and the Ottawa Journal among other titles for $165-million (Canadian). The purchase brought the company's share of daily English language newspaper circulation in Canada to about 26 per cent with daily sales topping a million.

"The purchase of The Globe and Mail and its subsequent development made up for the loss of The Times. I'd always liked it [The Globe]well before we bought it, and from the early 1970s I think I've read it every day," Ken Thomson said later. "How pleased my father would have been when we bought it. He'd made a sporting bid 25 years before when he had limited financial resources and he was outbid. We've made improvements and competition has speeded these up. Of course it's not perfect and sometimes it makes me mad, but that's what a newspaper is all about."

The day of the FP purchase, Roy Megarry, then publisher of The Globe said: "I'm assuming the same kind of motivation and feeling brought to The Times of London will apply to The Globe as well."

The Thomsons may have been happy with their new newspapers, but many Canadians were afraid that the country had been chopped into two rival newspaper chains owned by The Thomson and the Southam families. This fear became even more acute on Aug. 27, 1980 when Thomson Newspapers closed The Ottawa Journal and the Southam family shut down The Winnipeg Tribune, leaving both of those cities with only one daily newspaper.

Radio and television had been eroding print's share of the marketplace for decades. In the early part of the 20th century, at least 500 towns in North America had at least two rival newspapers. By 1978 only 35 towns could make that boast. Pierre Trudeau's Liberal government appointed the Royal Commission on Newspapers in 1980, under the chairmanship of Tom Kent, a British born journalist and former editor of The Winnipeg Free Press and a policy adviser to former Prime Minister Lester Pearson. It recommended that chain ownership in future should be limited to 20 per cent of national circulation, but a bill to this effect died on the order paper in 1983. Nevertheless, both Thomson Newspapers and Southam were charged with two counts of criminal conspiracy to reduce competition and criminal merger. John Tory and Southam head Gordon Fisher were named as co-conspirators under the federal Combines Investigation Act, but were eventually acquitted when Mr. Justice William Anderson accepted defence arguments that the closings of The Ottawa Journal and The Winnipeg Tribune were the result of independent decisions based on the state of the marketplace and not the consequence of collusion.

Ken Thomson never again purchased a major Canadian newspaper and instead looked south of the border for new print acquisitions, eventually becoming the owner of more dailies in the United States than any other corporate entity. By 1989, Thomson Newspapers had revenues in excess of $1-billion. To make its financial resources available to the wider Thomson group of companies, Thomson Newspapers were merged with its sister company International Thomson Organization Ltd. to form The Thomson Corporation with Ken Thomson continuing as chairman of both entities and John Tory as deputy chairman.

The 1990s was a decade of refocusing and restructuring the corporation into strategic marketing groups. The United Kingdom newspapers were sold, and the move into the professional and reference fields, that had begun in 1987 with the purchase of legal publishers in the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, continued with the acquisition of West Publishing in 1996, a company best known for its WESTLAW online research services and databases. This trend to be global in scope, electronic in nature and aimed primarily at the business and professional marketplace accelerated after Richard Harrington became president and chief executive officer of The Thomson Corporation in 1997. By the turn of the century, Thomson Travel had been sold and so had all of the community newspapers that had been the original source of the company's wealth.

In 2002 Ken Thomson stepped down as Chair of the Thomson Corp and was succeeded by his elder son David. He remained Chair of Woodbridge and a director of The Thomson Corporation, controlling the family's 69 per cent interest in the public company in 2005.

Kenneth Roy Thomson was born in Toronto on Sept. 1, 1923. He died of a heart attack on June 12, 2006. He was 82. He is survived by his wife Marilyn, his sons David and Peter, his daughter Taylor, his sister Audrey Campbell and their families.

Report an error

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • All comments will be reviewed by one or more moderators before being posted to the site. This should only take a few moments.
  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed. Commenters who repeatedly violate community guidelines may be suspended, causing them to temporarily lose their ability to engage with comments.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to
Cannabis pro newsletter