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Sep 08, 2019
An interview with Jim Thompson at Woodhouse in County Waterford, his Irish country home, by Steve Jordan

Jim Thompson in his study at Woodhouse

This is not a story about Woodhouse, the pristine Georgian mansion in the heart of rural County Waterford that Jim Thompson and his wife Sally have made their Irish home.  It’s not, but as I drove my hire car along its sweeping driveway, overlooking the valley of the river Tay, on a beautiful June afternoon, it was hard to imagine how it could not form the centrepiece of the Thompson tale.

The oak tree that has stood in the grounds for 400 years

Jim stumbled upon the place a few years ago while on an Irish excursion searching for his family roots. In 2012, the 500-acre Woodhouse estate came up for sale, and after one night as the guest of the owners, he was smitten.  It’s not hard to see why.  There is a peace about the place; it feels almost spiritual. The only sounds are the babbling of the river, the breeze in the trees and the occasional baying from Jim’s modest herd of Aberdeen Angus cattle. As I approached the house, I could feel all the stresses of the day, maybe of a lifetime, flow away leaving space for a full appreciation of the tranquillity and long history of this splendid family home.

The river Tay flows through the grounds

Jim welcomed me warmly into the kitchen, a room relocated and created to be at the centre of family life, overlooking the sweeping lawns, the river and under the scrutiny of an Oak tree, magnificent, all seeing, all knowing, that has stood sentry for at least 400 years, deferring to no one, recording every moment as if to report to a higher authority.

The restoration of the out-buildings, including five cottages, is nearing completionJim and Sally bought Woodhouse for the sort of money that would buy you a decent apartment in Hong Kong, where they live most of the time.  But, of course, that’s just the start. They began restoring the mansion house, five cottages, stables and other out-buildings, and the estate itself in what must then have felt like a marathon project.  With the benefit of plenty of hard work from the Thompsons and a legion of specialist contractors, the project now appears close to completion … that is, if it can ever be completed.  For Jim, Woodhouse was not bought as an investment, it’s a lifestyle project.  There has been a house on the site for centuries, and Jim knows he is merely the current custodian of this one. He’s proud to be so.

The early years

He grew up in a blue-collar district of New Jersey.  His father (Jim senior) was in the navy and, at the end of the War, was transferred to Guam and subsequently to California, something of an adventure for the young Jim and his family. He attended state college and was identified as having an aptitude for engineering. He graduated from university with a degree in aeronautical engineering. During a gap year in 1960-61 Jim worked in factories to get some money to travel.  It was then that he became captivated by Asia. “It was a life-changing experience,” he said. “A defining moment.”

Meanwhile, Jim’s father had left the navy and had started working for a new moving company called Intercontinental Transport for whom he set up a branch in Yokohama.  Jim senior returned to California but Jim, keen to return to Japan, took a job there where he was something of a hit providing liaison between the Japanese and the US military. Unfortunately, when Jim senior left the company 18-months later, Jim got pushed out too.

Starting out and dealing with temptation

That was in 1965 and Jim decided to go it alone.  He had no money, but he did have a few contacts and some of the staff in Yokohama were willing to join him. “We got going in a very small way,” said Jim.  “We only had $1,000 and we rented a cubicle from a guy who sold magazines to use as an office.” He won a packing contract with the US military that gave him a chance. “We were so determined to make it work.”  He called the company Transport Services International (TSI). Meanwhile his dad tried to get something going in California, but it didn’t work out. Jim senior returned to working for the government.

TSI was successful for the next five years. It did so through continuing the military work while developing corporate traffic through the emerging companies in Tokyo. “Most of the competitors thought that was too hard so we had a good position.”

There then came another defining moment. Jim was given the opportuning to sell TSI to Columbia Export Packers in return for shares in its NY Stock Exchange-listed parent company MPS.  On the point of signing the deal Jim pulled out. “It just didn’t feel right,” he said. MPS went bankrupt two years later.

Branching out

Another milestone came in 1970 when attending his first ever BAR (British Association of Removers) conference in Eastbourne. A chance meeting put him with Phil Kriegsman from Illinois. Phil had the Caterpillar contract and was looking for agents. Caterpillar had its HQ in Hong Kong so, after establishing that there was an opportunity for a professional mover there, Jim and Phil became business partners, putting up $25,000 each to start what became Crown Pacific in Hong Kong. “We thought it was worth a shot,” said Jim.

Phil’s cousin Jim Kriegsman came over from the US to run Hong Kong. That’s when the expansion started, with operations in Singapore in 1972 followed by Indonesia and Malaysia.  Jim recognised that there were no professional international moving companies in these countries and rolled out his business model, hiring young American guys as managers, not necessarily with any previous moving experience. “We were like a band of brothers,” said Jim.  “We thought we could do no wrong. Foreign investment was rolling into Asia and we had a formula for success. It was so much fun.”

A diversion came about when Carl Joyce, Jim’s sister’s husband, bought Dean Forwarding in the US then sold it to Jim (senior). Jim (senior) wanted it to be part of the Crown network but Crown was already working with a lot of US agents. A somewhat unreal situation continued for some years in which Crown had its own close connections in the US but continued to reciprocate with other US agents.

The split

In the late 1970s the Kriegsmans decided they wanted to sell their half of the business to expand more in the Middle East and gave Jim first refusal.  “The only way I could do it was to squeeze the cash out of the company,” said Jim. “It was an incredible two-year ordeal, not just for me but also for the branch managers. It was demoralising for everybody. At the end I had pretty much drained them of any enthusiasm. I should not have been surprised when several of the original team quit. I owned the business completely but its spirit had been drained. I had to dig deep to re-energise myself and the business.”

Jim said though that some of the second-tier managers turned out to be better than the originals.  One who really shone was Bob McGregor who had been in Malaysia. “He moved to Hong Kong and did a fantastic job,” said Jim.  “We are still good friends.

Going global

The Scotpac acquisition in 1989 marked the end of any possible pretence that Crown was not a global organisation.  Crown’s only competition for the acquisition was Pickfords and a possible MOB but P&O, Scotpac’s parent company, preferred Jim’s offer. “The Crown, Dean and Scotpac didn’t overlap anywhere,” he said, “so it was a good fit.” Jim felt confident that any business the company lost from reciprocation it would gain by exploiting the corporate sales opportunities in the new regions.  Sadly, it didn’t quite work out that way and the Scotpac staff, used to handling migrant moves, proved difficult to redirect towards the much more relationship-building type of sales approach that was required at that time.  “So, we had to change some of the people.” That’s also when the whole organisation came under one universal branding: Crown.

In the States, Jim found that some of the agents continued dealing with him and he was able to reciprocate, especially in areas where the company wasn’t represented. “It was always dicey and there were questions about our loyalty and whether we were stealing their information, so we tried to be above board and not do that. But we knew that the day would come when we would lose all those relationships.”

The changing market

The moving industry is characterised by strong business contacts and often friendships between partners and I wondered whether Jim had felt in any way isolated from that. He said that he did to some extent but he was careful not to appear arrogant in any way. “We were trying to be a quality player.  Our biggest competition was the strong, local company in every market.”

But Jim knew that the market was changing, corporations preferred to have global suppliers if possible. “It was a change in the industry that put the smaller mover with great local relationships in jeopardy.” It was especially powerful because the Internet had just become viable and the universal technology platform that Crown operated was very attractive to corporations. “People liked the ‘one system’ concept.”

I asked Jim what he felt was the secret of his success.  He said that historically movers didn’t cross into the territory of their competitors. “What we were doing was completely against anything they believed in, but we were OK because we were in Asia. Others, such as Interdean, were doing it in Europe too as companies were swallowed up. There would always be a place for the high-quality local companies but the big business was always going to go global.”

Management style

Jim’s business now employs thousands of people and I asked him his thoughts on motivation.  He said that the only way a company can grow is if you delegate. It’s no use trying to micromanage people. “You have to let people make their own decisions, and sometimes make mistakes,” said Jim. “If you give people freedom some will blow you away with their abilities.” Of course, some of the Crown people are now retiring and Jim tries to do that in the most respectful way he can.

The new normal

Crown has suffered from a downturn in business in recent years, just as have other companies.  Jim guesses turnover to be around 20% down from the peak a few years ago. He tackles it through technology where possible, including shared services offices, and he has moved now to a more asset-light structure.  Crown has also diversified with, amongst others, its document storage service. I asked where he thought the price war, in which the whole industry has been engaged for decades, will stop.  “It stops when there is a thinning out of the market,” he said. “Meanwhile we streamline our services as much as possible and ride it out.”

The company is also wrestling with the new trend towards lump sum payments and Jim has divided the business specifically to address this as it requires a completely different market approach. But, although millennials do seem to think about possessions differently, Jim doesn’t believe there will be a fundamental shift. “People will still acquire stuff, it’s been the pattern for 50 years.  If you have nice things you still want to have confidence in your mover.”

Succession

Jenny Harvey is Jim’s daughter. She’s been working in the business for many years and, now that her own children are grown, has been taking a much more active role. Jim recognises that business, particularly today, is for young people and he handed over management control many years ago. His day to day work now focusses more on charitable work.  He likes to be kept informed but doesn’t interfere too much.  “But old people still carry wisdom,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”

Reflections

The business now serves more than 50 countries through 200+ offices and provides employment to around 5,000 people. By turnover it’s still 60% moving and relocation, but by profit the business is dominated by records storage.  Despite its global reach, it still generates a high level of business from Asia.

I asked if the company’s success had surprised Jim.  “Yes, it’s surprised the hell out of me,” he said.  He admitted that there wasn’t much vision involved, just trying to make next week’s payroll. “That the business supports so many families is hard for me to comprehend. I sometimes wonder how it happened.”

Jim does, however, admit to perseverance. He said that although he didn’t appreciate it at the time, dealing with the crises during the development of the business was sometimes scary. “Now it has its own momentum, it’s nice to look at it.” Now that he has taken a step back, he knows his top people are absolutely trustworthy.

I wondered who had inspired Jim. He said he was most inspired by his father whom he idolised for his dignity and his ability to make something of his life despite a modest start. “He set the model for me to do what I could with the tools I was given.”  Sitting in Jim’s study at Woodhouse, I figure Jim senior would be pretty impressed by his boy’s achievements.

Sculpture reflecting the beauty of teh ancient walled gardenThe legacy

As well as an overview of Crown, Jim keeps himself busy with his charitable work as well as the ongoing Woodhouse project. It’s a working farm and a popular venue for holiday lets and social gatherings including weddings, the history society and performances from the local amateur dramatics group. 

At home in the walled garden

It was with a deserved sense of achievement that Jim showed me around the stunning walled garden and the ongoing project to upgrade the riverbank. The refurbished cottages were just stunning and, although he’s not really a petrol head, Jim does have a few cars to satisfy the ‘boy’s toys’ urge.

But perhaps surprisingly Jim was at his most intense when showing me around the museum he has created to chart the history of Woodhouse. With references to the estate’s guardians dating back to the 17th century up to Jim and Sally themselves, it is clear that as the history continues to be written, the Thompsons will be remembered amongst those who made a difference. He’ll be remembered in the moving industry for the same reason. 

The garden       Jim explains the history of WoodhouseWoodhouse

Photos:

Jim Thompson in his study at Woodhouse.

The oak tree that has stood in the grounds for over 400 years.

At home in the walled garden.

Jim explains the history of Woodhouse.

The restoration of the out-buildings, including five cottages, is nearing completion.

The garden.

The river Ray flows through the grounds.

Sculpture reflecting the beauty of the ancient walled garden.

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