Several years ago I was in the Thomson Building in Toronto. I went down the hall to the small kitchen to get myself a cup of coffee. Ken Thomson was there, making himself some instant soup. At the time, he was the ninth-richest man in the world, worth approximately $19.6 billion. Enough, certainly, to afford a nice lunch. I looked at the soup he was stirring. “It suits me just fine,” he said, smiling.
Thomson understood value. Neighbors reported seeing him leave his local grocery store with jumbo packages of tissues that were on sale. He bought off-the-rack suits and had his old shoes resoled. Yet he had no difficulty paying almost $76 million for a painting (for Peter Paul Rubens’s Massacre of the Innocents, in 2002). He sought value, whether it was in business, art, or groceries.
In 1976, Thomson inherited a $500-million business empire that was built on newspapers, publishing, travel agencies, and oil. By the time he died, in 2006, his empire had grown to $25 billion.
He left both a financial legacy and an art legacy, but his most lasting legacy might be the culture he created. Geoffrey Beattie, who worked closely with him, said that Ken wasn’t a business genius. His success came from being a principled investor and from surrounding himself with good people and staying loyal to them. In return he earned their loyalty.
For the long-term viability of any enterprise, Thomson understood that you needed a viable corporate culture. It, too, had to be long-term. So he cultivated good people and kept them. Thomson worked with honest and competent business managers and gave them his long-term commitment and support. From these modest principles, an empire grew.
Thomson created a culture that extended out from him and has lived after him. Here are eight rules for creating the right conditions for a culture that reflects your creed:
1. Hire the right people
Hire for passion and commitment first, experience second, and credentials third. There is no shortage of impressive CVs out there, but you should try to find people who are interested in the same things you are. You don’t want to be simply a stepping stone on an employee’s journey toward his or her own (very different) passion. Asking the right questions is key: What do you love about your chosen career? What inspires you? What courses in school did you dread? You want to get a sense of what the potential employee believes.