Kenneth Roy Thomson

Kenneth Roy Thomson, the second Lord Thomson of Fleet and always known as Ken, even to people only on the periphery of his circle, spent most of his life like it was a burden.

When he died on 12 June at the age of 82 in his native Toronto, the richest man in Canada and, according to Forbes, the ninth richest man in the world with a wealth of $9bn, it is doubtful whether he felt he had long since discharged the burden.

The burden was his need to meet what he perceived to be his father's expectations for him. Roy Herbert Thomson, the first Lord Thomson of Fleet, was a businessman of genius.

After a few false starts, this son of a hard-drinking barber with Scottish origins built up a business in publishing, oil and travel in north America and the UK on mostly borrowed money. It was worth about £500m when he died, aged 82, in 1976.

Ken Thomson, the youngest of three and the only son, attended a leading Canadian private school and read law at Cambridge. There was never any doubt he would go into the family business.

But most of the time while Roy was building up the business in the UK between the mid-'50s and the mid-'70s, Ken was in Canada, while able chief executives such as James Coltart and then Gordon Brunton worked alongside his father in London.

All this changed with the death of Roy Thomson. He had delighted in his peerage and regarded his ownership of Times Newspapers as an honour and a privilege, funding the heavy losses for more than a decade from his own pocket.

Ken Thomson pledged to maintain his father's support for TNL, but also wanted the group to move to profitability.

Instead, industrial relations further deteriorated the finances, leading to the year's suspension in 1978-79, the illfated journalists' strike in 1980 and the sale of The Times and The Sunday Times at a knock-down price to Rupert Murdoch in 1981.

From this point, Thomson's focus was on north America, and over the next two decades most of the UK assets — the oil, travel, local directories, Thomson Regional Newspapers, trade and consumer magazines — were all profitably sold off and the proceeds invested in north American electronic publishing ventures. Thomson Financial Services is up there in some markets with Dow- Jones, Reuters and Bloomberg.

The £500m business which Ken Thomson took over is now worth £15bn, second only to News Corp in media groups quoted in the UK. The Thomson family owns 70 per cent of the equity.

This range of development is the result of a harmonious reconciliation of market opportunities with personal temperament. Ken Thomson would never have authorised Wapping. He would never have owned a raw red-top and probably would have been uncomfortable in popular television, although that was where Roy Thomson got his kick-start with Scottish Television in 1957.

Roy was brash and gregarious. A widower, his hobbies were reading other people's balance sheets and Western thrillers. Ken was a Baptist with a happy home life, married to Marilyn with three children. He was a non-smoker and tee-totaller with an art collection rivalling many national galleries and a taste for country and western music.

What father and son did have in common was a shared business ethos and culture. The Thomson businesses have always been "clean" – the family's biscuit-dry politics and economics were never imposed on the papers, the business was driven hard but with understanding of the human dimension.

Inevitably, Roy Thomson's famous "gaffe'' — that owning STV was a "licence to print money'' — has been recalled in Ken's obituaries. Ken Thomson once told me the real story.

Roy was in a Toronto lift with a business reporter, both bound for the same AGM. The reporter asked how the TV station in Scotland was doing, and Roy replied: "It's a licence to print money.''

The words were never used at the AGM, but the reporter had his intro and the insensitive remark became folklore.

Roy never minded. Ken was still pained, years later.

Some obits said he always flew economy.

This is true, but only in the early days. The impetus for selling Times Newspapers to Murdoch came from a chance meeting of the two men in the Concorde departure lounge.

At 49, David Thomson, with the largest collection of Constables in private hands, takes over from his father.

This is a burden of sorts. The challenge for him is to combine something of his grandfather's flair with his father's surefootedness.

Roger Nicholson is a former managing director of Thomson Regional Newspapers and Times correspondent

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