Borders are no barrier for Thomson

Roy Thomson died 31 years ago and his son Ken passed away last June. Yet their legacy was very much alive in Toronto this week at the annual meeting of Thomson Corporation, the global electronic information group that Roy started and his heirs control.

The meeting was held, as always, at Roy Thomson Hall, the city’s main concert venue. The proceedings included numerous tributes to Ken.

“I feel all of us have been touched by this extraordinary human being, and I would say I certainly feel his arm around my shoulder,” David Thomson, Ken’s son and the company’s current chairman, told shareholders.

In many ways, however, the Thomson family is less extraordinary than the story of its company, which emerged Friday as a possible bidder for Reuters, the news and financial data provider.

Since Roy Thomson bought a radio station in northern Ontario in the 1930s, the family’s business interests have undergone several transformations. Roy – who also held the title Lord Thomson of Fleet – was proprietor of The Times of London from the late 1960s to 1981.

Until the early 1990s, Thomson’s interests were centred on regional newspapers in the UK; Thomson Travel, one of the world’s biggest travel and packaged tour groups; and, for a time, North Sea oil. The family also at one time controlled the Hudson’s Bay Company, Canada’s biggest retail chain.

Many outsiders attribute the family’s business success to its willingness, especially since Roy’s death, to be guided by a succession of skilled managers, notably Michael Brown and John Tory during the 1990s and, more recently, Geoff Beattie and Richard Harrington.

Mr Beattie is president of Woodbridge, the family’s main holding company. Mr Harrington is Thomson’s chief executive.

Thomson saw the limitations of print media long before most of its rivals. Over the past 15 years, it has transformed itself into one of the world’s biggest providers of electronic databases and other information to, among others, lawyers, doctors, scientists and investment bankers.

The family’s only remaining newspaper interest is a 40 per cent stake in Canada’s Globe and Mail, held through a private company.

Thomson reported 2006 earnings of $1.1bn from $6.6bn in revenues. Its shares have almost doubled over the past five years.

Thomson Financial is putting the finishing touches to a global news network built on the back of AFX, the European service that it bought last year. It now employs about 500 reporters, double the number a year ago.

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