A resident of Hong Kong for 40 years who has embraced a roller coaster of shifts in the local economic, social and political environments, Chairman of Crown Worldwide Group Jim Thompson reflects on how thankful he is to have landed at the proverbial “right place at the right time,” amidst a celebration of founding a thriving company half a century ago.
By Blessing Waung
On the 50th anniversary of Crown Worldwide, founder and chairman Jim Thompson is pleasantly surprised. Over the course of many months, staff from around the world have collaborated for a video wishing the company “Happy Birthday, Crown!” in languages ranging from Austrian to Arabic to Turkish.
Thompson is living the American dream, albeit in Asia. He famously started his company with a thousand US dollars, and through seemingly infinite obstacles, grew it into an international business that now churns out sales close to US$900 million a year.
It’s a far cry from the cramped cubicle in Yokohama, Japan where Thompson’s dream of founding and running a company was once a fledgling idea. In his office located in Wan Chai’s Mass Mutual Tower, where Thompson today sits with an easy grin, he can be regarded naturally by those who have encountered him, without fail, as one of the most genuinely kind men one will ever encounter.
Living in Hong Kong in the past four decades, Thompson has embraced a roller coaster of shifts in the local economic, social and political environments. Now, as the company celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this year, he reflects on how thankful he is to have landed at the proverbial right place at the right time. It’s also a big year for Thompson personally, as he celebrates his 75th birthday.
The Early Years
The path to Asia was one of chance. Thompson’s father was based in Japan as a US naval officer when the younger Thompson was in college at San Jose State University. In the summer of 1948 following his freshman year, he crossed the Pacific Ocean courtesy of the Navy’s student dependent program for a brief visit in which he climbed Mount Fuji, hung out around the military base, and by the end of summer started hatching plans for a return to Japan.
He and his Alpha Tau Omega fraternity brother came up with an idea to do a round the-world trip, traveling to Europe and somehow ending up in Japan. The finances came from working for the American Can Company in San Jose, scrimping and eventually buying ship passages from Canada to Europe. The trip ended in Japan, and Thompson stayed for six weeks.
“In my last year of college, all I could think about was going back to Asia,” Thompson says. “I had the bug.”
A college graduate, Thompson bought a one-way ticket to Japan to work for a furniture moving company where his father was employed. A year and a half later, in December 1964, he was let go, and everything else took a spin.
“When I left the company, they assumed I was going back to the US and felt obligated to give me a ticket back to the States,” Thompson laughs. “It was a redeemable ticket. I just took it and said ‘thank you.’”
Instead of flying home, Thompson took the ticket, cashed it, and famously cobbled the money together with his savings of a thousand dollars to start his business. “The first five years, well, I guess you can say were rapid because we did 99,000 dollars,” Thompson recalls. “A hundred thousand dollars of business in the first year, and 188,000 dollars in the second year. By the end of the fifth year, the end of 1969, we were very close to a million dollars of sales.”
With tremendous momentum, it was time to transition from working for the military to a focus on the corporate sector, at a time when Japan was stepping into becoming the second largest economy in the postwar years. In a stroke of serendipity, Thompson traveled to an industry meeting in England.
“Someone told me that there were a lot of different agents from the moving companies at this meeting and advised me to network with them,” he says. There, Thompson met a fellow American mover servicing Caterpillar, a large US corporation with a major factory in Japan and regionally headquartered in Hong Kong at the time.
“Hong Kong was trying to cope with the shock of the Cultural Revolution because it certainly affected the city,” he says. “There were riots, and I have pictures of Red Guards here in Hong Kong. Many of the Western businessmen packed up and left because they felt Hong Kong might fall to communism, that’s how bad it was.
But, by late 1969, it had somewhat calmed down.”
“When we came to Hong Kong and looked around, we found there was little in the way of competition,” he adds. “Mostly, it was local companies, not up to the international standards of packing.”
Expanding to Hong Kong
At the time, Thompson and a few of his peers considered Singapore as well. He recalls sitting at a hotel there, debating, and finally deciding upon Hong Kong.
“My original company’s name was Transport Service International. I didn’t like the name. Plus, a guy offered to buy my business in Japan,” he says. “So, when we set up in Hong Kong, we wanted a name more memorable, went through a list, and settled on Crown. As we went to register it, we were told that it was already taken. We were so heartbroken [but eventually came up with Crown Pacific].”
Despite the idea of selling his Japan company to a gentleman in Los Angeles (which he never did) at one point, “within the next five years we expanded into Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines,” Thompson says. “The Asian market was really undeveloped, and local companies didn’t know anybody overseas. We came in with a new international approach to the whole moving process.”
“We were fortunate because we were in the right place at the right time doing the right service,” he adds. “On the one hand, you take a lot of risks, but on the other hand, if it pays off, you are definitely in good shape.”
In 2004, Thompson hired a former South African diplomat Gregory De’eb and took a bold move by leasing munitions bunkers from Hong Kong to open what was to become the first world-class wine cellar in Asia.
Nowadays, Thompson spends much of his time speaking at forums and to students in particular as mentor. “The one thing I often mention is: if you want to succeed, you have to be ready to persevere because no ride is going to be smooth,” he emphasizes. “No matter at whatever level, you’ve got to get through those barriers that come in your way, and not let them distract you.”
However, once successful, Thompson believes the onus is on entrepreneurs to take that reward and return it by giving back to the community in ways of supporting others.
“My parents weren’t rich, but they were always trying to do things for other people,” he says. “You know, when you are a kid, you take it for granted, but when you are grown up, you look back and say, ‘Wow. They were really kind people.’ They didn’t have much in terms of money but they were always ready to help people out.”
“When I got to Japan as a young guy, my dad had been supporting an orphanage there. I say supporting because it wasn’t like he funded it,” he says. “When local Japanese people asked, ‘Will you do this?’ and I said ‘sure.’ We would regularly look after these Japanese orphans, and we actually watched some of them grow up. It was a fun experience.”
It is a foundation of benevolence Thompson has carried through the next generation, with his daughter Jennifer Harvey now running the company’s worldwide corporate social responsibility agenda. “When I helped out in the orphanage in Japan, Jenny was a little girl, in a little outfit giving out Christmas presents,” Thompson recalls. “I think she has the exact same spirit.”
“Between his tenacity, the fact that he’s smart and such a people person, and probably that at a few points in his life, he was lucky…the fact that he tells you about his good fortune says more about him than the fact that there was good fortune,” Harvey says. “He’s humble enough to admit that all successful people were lucky at some point. He doesn’t want all the attention to be on him.”
“It’s very funny that magazines like Forbes talk about his net worth or that kind of thing, which is not really reality because they are valuing, say, properties and things that are not necessarily liquid assets,” Harvey laughs. “It paints a picture of him to be the man with this number attached to him, but in fact, he is such a down-to-earth person.”
And he agrees. “As my life progressed, I would from time to time think ‘Why am I so lucky?” Thompson says. “There’s nothing so special about me. I have felt on occasions that whatever it was taking me down this path to increasing wealth somehow does not all belong to me.”
A Family of Employees
When Billy Wong, Managing Director of Crown Worldwide for Greater China, joined the group in 1979, there was a global staff of around 650 housed in 15 different offices. In three and a half decades, it has grown to include more than 5,000 employees worldwide in 265 different offices.
“Why did I stay for so long with Crown?” Wong asks. “It’s the company values: we share, we care, we’re determined, and we’re open-minded.”
Thompson himself glows when speaking of employees who have come on board at a young age and stayed with the company through years of exponential growth, saying that he makes an effort to celebrate their efforts and anniversaries.
“Jim is a visionary and an influential person, both under the work and life spectrums,” Wong describes. “He is the charismatic leader of the Crown Worldwide Group.”
Thompson’s vision in giving back to the community has given rise to a generation of employees determined to make a difference. “We came up with the idea of a relay among our offices in holding a fundraiser, and we all have a common charitable goal, which focuses on local children’s health and education,” Harvey says.
“We do local fundraisers in each place to support some elements in the development of children,” she explains. “It goes from one country to another, and we do it more or less in the order in which the company expanded. The first office to lead off was Japan, and then they passed a baton to Hong Kong and so forth. We are calling it the ‘Golden Relay.’”
“Each country sets a fundraising target, and they get an award and a letter from Jim Thompson recognizing their achievement,” she says. “They hold up a sign that may say, for example, ‘Crown Hong Kong, you are next’ and take pictures in celebration. People get very excited.”
“AmCham has always been a cohesive place where Americans or American-related businesses come together,” Thompson says. “So, it was really necessary. It is somewhat amazing that while there was an American Club, there wasn’t a chamber prior to 1969.”
“When it was formed, it became a magnet for those people who wanted to discuss issues related to American business,” he says. “It really was structured well and grew in strength.”
And, Thompson’s involvement with the American Chamber of Commerce was not confined to the city of Hong Kong, but since the beginning of his early career in Yokohama, Japan, Harvey recalls. “He was involved with the American Chamber of Commerce in Tokyo, and he would drive an hour from Yokohama, just to go and participate and be involved there.”
“One of the many things that makes him so extraordinary and what people around him try to replicate – he is the guy who will remember to care for an employee in some small town whose wife is sick, and he will remember some other person from a very distant location who has the same birthday as his own,” she says.
“But, he is not doing it to prove something or try to win people over. He’s really about the people at the company,” she adds.
“I think it translates to his involvement in a place like the American Chamber of Commerce because so much of it is about people connecting with each other and trying to learn from each other,” Harvey says. “It’s also about business people coming together and trying to make the whole company work better. So, it really suited him in a way because he is so interested in others and what they have achieved.”
One of Thompson’s all-time most proud accomplishments was being awarded the Gold Bauhinia Star in 2003 from the Hong Kong Government – the second highest recognition equivalent to the Order of the British Empire awarded to individuals honoring their commitment and contribution to the community of Hong Kong.
Though Hong Kong may have faced countless crises and turmoil time after time, Thompson remains highly optimistic and maintains great faith in a city which he calls home, since arriving more than 40 years ago. “People here work so hard that it makes you want to work hard too,” he says. “I found that to be true when I first came to Hong Kong, and I could still feel that spirit.”
“Hong Kong really is a wonderful place: an international city with good work ethics and a sound tax and legal system,” he says. “All of those things are still in place.”
“In terms of my success, I’ll always say a lot of it simply had to do with fact that we were based here,” Thompson says in reflection. “I know companies make successful businesses all over the world, but I really feel that the basics of Hong Kong encourage business development and certainly the work ethics of people.”