Roy Thomson- Canada’s First Great Capital Allocator

February 7, 2019

Our favorite definition of “entrepreneurship” is: “the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled.” 


John recently read Russell Braddon’s Roy Thomson of Fleet Street. We thought that Thomson’s origin story typifies entrepreneurship and is worth sharing. 


Roy Thomson was a radio salesman in Northern Ontario in the 1930s. One challenge he faced was that few people in his sales territory could afford a radio. Another challenge was the absence of any reliable reception of distant radio signals for those who could afford a radio. To spur demand, Thomson decided to start his own radio station. He faced only one obstacle…no money. 


But that didn’t stop him. First, he bought a radio license from a local mining company for $1. The license was available because the mining company intended to use the license to communicate between mines but ultimately continued with telephones instead. Next, Thomson traded free advertising for free rent at the local theatre. Then he traveled to Toronto to acquire a transmitter. He found a station that had recently upgraded its equipment, and offered to buy their old transmitter for $500. Then he asked the station to lend him the money to pay for it. Back in North Bay, he discovered the old transmitter needed new tubes. He convinced the Toronto company to sell him those in exchange for another promissory note, and to loan him an engineer to install everything. And that was how Roy Thomson, eventually Canada’s wealthiest person, got started. 


Thomson eventually became a serial acquirer of both radio and particularly community newspapers. We hadn’t coined the term yet, but he was arguably Canada’s first “Great Capital Allocator.” As small cap investors, the opportunity to meet tomorrow’s great entrepreneurs today is one of the greatest joys in our work. Several of our portfolio companies are run by terrific capital allocators. It’s too early to say but perhaps we’ve even identified the next Roy Thomson. 

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