Crown’s Jim Thompson reflects on the highs and lows over the years of building his multimillion-dollar global relocations business
“Can’t you find anyone better than me?” was Crown Worldwide Group Chairman and Founder Jim Thompson’s first thought when asked to give the commencement speech at his alma mater, San Jose State University in 2011.
Thompson, who turns 80 this January, is full of modesty about the various accolades bestowed on him over the years when we meet in his harbor-view office suite in Wanchai’s China Evergrande Centre.
It’s a little hard not to be distracted by the vast collection of awards and pictures of Thompson with famous people decorating the shelves.
“I’ve always held the Bush family in high regard,” says the American billionaire, gesturing to a photograph of himself next to George H W Bush. At Thompson’s request, the former US president penned a letter that day for his sick father who was a big fan of the politician.
The founder of the world’s largest privately held relocations company and former AmCham HK Chairman has certainly led an interesting life, and has everything to show for it.
Thompson at his office in Wanchai's Evergrande Centre
His story starts in 1940, in Jersey City, New Jersey.
“I was raised by women until age six. All the men at the time were in the military, and I had no male role models,” he says.
Thompson’s father was stationed at a US naval base in Japan for the entirety of the Second World War. Despite his absence during his son’s early years, Thompson’s father ended up being the biggest influence on his son’s life.
Thompson credits his father for insisting that he attend university, even though at that time a university education wasn’t common or expected of young people. This fact is clearly a point of pride for Thompson and a privilege he knows not to take for granted. “Back then high school was a big deal in itself,” he says.
“Did you go to university?” Thompson asks me sensitively, which isn’t a question millennials get asked very often as though it’s a choice. I tell him that I did, of course.
“My father was not an educated man but he did the best he could and was determined that his own children take the opportunity he himself never had. He was my greatest role model,” Thompson says of his late father. “People always expect me to say Warren Buffet or someone like that.
“I have this image burned in my mind of seeing my dad in uniform and thinking ‘what a hero,’” he says with a smile.
His father’s wartime tales of the Far East had captured his son’s imagination and would later prove the inspiration behind the younger Thompson’s travels.
At 21, Thompson took a year off in between his junior and senior year at college to travel the world with a friend. Financed from a job at a cannery company, they traveled across Europe and Asia, ending the trip with a life-changing six weeks in Yokohama, Japan.
It wasn’t long after Thompson returned to the States that he became consumed with the idea of getting back to Japan. “All I wanted to do was go back to Asia,” he says.
Yokohama: The birth of Crown
After graduation, Thompson bought a one-way ticket back to Yokohama where he got a job working for the Japanese arm of an American furniture-moving business where his father worked.
Then, after about 18 months, the company handed Thompson a termination notice and an air ticket back to the States. It was 1964.
Determined to stay on and make it in Japan, Thompson started a small relocations business out of a rented room in Yokohama wIth nothing but US$1,000 of his own savings and the cash redeemed from his unused air ticket.
After landing the company’s first contract with his father’s old US naval base, Thompson’s network of contacts grew by the day and business started flooding in. His big break came when American construction company Caterpillar needed a mobility contract in Japan and chose Crown, which back then was called Transport Service International.
“In our first year we made US$90,000 in sales. By the second year that amount had doubled,” he says.
A bit of clever marketing didn’t hurt either. “We had a fancy brochure! We were showing our customers in Tokyo somewhat deceptive pictures of what was, in reality, a very small office in Yokohama,” he says candidly.
Yokohama, Japan - The beginning of Crown
Hong Kong: Jumping off point
“We moved to HK in the 1970s, just as the disruption caused by the Cultural Revolution had all calmed down,” he says. “Many expats had fled the city during the Revolution, but by the time we arrived, the market was picking back up and entering into a mini-boom.”
The timing and lack of competition in Hong Kong helped Crown from day one. “There weren’t any international movers catering for the city’s English-speaking community. We had found our niche,” he says.
One of the first of what would become a familiar sight in Hong Kong the signature red of a Crown Pacific truck on the city streets early 1970s
The packing team pose for a brochure shot in Hong Kong's New Territories early 1970s
Crown became the first relocations company in the city to successfully fill that niche, turning a profit in its first year of operation. In 2020, Crown will celebrate its 50th year in Hong Kong.
Even with luck on his side from the beginning, Thompson says that for many years his vision for the company was about survival. “At that point, we were so small and just focused on paying bills and getting by. As the company grew, the day-to-day of the business just consumed us with many wonderful thrills along the way,” he says.
“It wasn’t until the mid-80s when we knew we had a successful business that we could sit back and think of what could come out of it,” he says.
The Crown Pacific Malaysia team in 1974
At that point Crown decided to diversify its service offering, starting with a foray into records management. This period was a learning curve, with a lot of “misfires,” says Thompson.
Another turning point during the mid-80s came when Crown won a bid for ownership of a plot of land in Shatin – the first foreign company to do so. This piece of land became the site for Crown’s first warehouse in Hong Kong, which “filled up quickly and is still in use today,” says Thompson.
One of Thompson’s biggest challenges as a young entrepreneur was a lack of self-confidence. What helped him grow it was learning to communicate effectively in order to build trust and manage people -- a skill Thompson admits he wasn’t naturally born with.
“As a young guy selling to silver-haired executives I was very unsure of myself. I was forced out of my comfort zone, bit by bit, as our reputation grew from word of mouth,” he says.
Betrayal and resilience
Crown’s journey wasn’t all smooth sailing, says Thompson, who experienced “the biggest setback of his career” when in 1980, his “next in line, trusted CFO” quietly gathered all of Crown’s managers behind his back and announced they were leaving to form rival Santa Fe.
“That was a bitter blow. I lost my mojo after that,” he says wistfully.
After this incident, the remaining (mostly clerical-level) staff stepped up to fill the abandoned managerial positions on their own initiative. Seeing his staff’s loyalty to the company was what gave Thompson the will to pick himself up and carry on, he says.
“These ladies were so angry for me. But by then they had become familiar with how the managers spoke to our customers on the phone and started to step into those roles, picking up phones and making sales calls themselves. After I witnessed this I thought ‘how can I feel sorry for myself?’” he says.
“Give people a chance and they are capable of so much,” he says.
The chamber guy
Thompson’s long relationship with AmChams began in his 20s when he joined the chamber in Japan “to see who was coming and going.” After leaving Yokohama and moving with the business to Hong Kong, Thompson was invited to join AmCham Hong Kong’s Board of Governors, an honor which he says was significant to him as he had “just arrived in the city and hadn’t done the grunt work yet.”
Since then he’s been a big supporter of AmCham, keeping closely involved in its mission to be a voice for Hong Kong’s international business community, something he says he believes is important to the HKSAR government.
Thompson was appointed Chairman of AmCham’s Board of Governors for two consecutive years in 2002 and 2003, a role he says has made a huge impact on his life and work.
“People still say to me, ‘oh you’re the chamber guy!’ and I’m still always asked for my opinion by government executives,” he says.
As established as Crown’s reputation is today, Thompson knows the key to the company’s longevity will be its ability to keep on top of technology and mobility trends. He says that one day Crown’s legacy will be entrusted to his daughter and successor Jennifer Harvey, CEO of Crown Americas.
As we wrap up the interview, Thompson passes me a signed copy of his book The Story of Crown and offers a piece of parting advice to new entrepreneurs.
“A lot of people have their own view of what business should be, and that is noble, but know that it takes perseverance. You need to have this mindset that you will do this for the rest of your life. Don’t give away a lot of equity away too soon, even if it’s tempting. That would be a mistake if you’re putting in all of your effort and money. Sure [staying private] can restrict you, but it liberates you from shareholders, and that’s why we never went public,” he says.
Tung Chee-hwa then Chief Executive bestows on Jim the Bauhinia award in 2003