Making the grade

Known for his modesty and down-to-earth manner, self-made billionaire and Gold Bauhinia Star recipient Jim Thompson talks to Kate Whitehead about his schools building campaign


Jim Thompson is in his Wan Chai office looking relaxed. He stopped wearing ties to work a while ago and has shrugged off his jacket. There's some pricey looking art on the wall, but nothing ostentatious, nothing that shouts billionaire.

"I've had success in business and that's all been great, but after a while it gets - I don't want to say it gets boring - but it's a more-of-the-same sort of thing," said Thompson, chairman of Crown Worldwide Group.

He's not kidding about success in business. Thompson's back on Forbes' billionaires list again this year, the source of his wealth listed as "self-made". Beginning in 1965 with just an idea and US$1,000 in the bank, he built his global logistics company that today has more than 250 offices in 55 countries.

At 73, he's still involved in running the company, but leaves a lot of decisions to managers. And that gives him time to focus on philanthropic projects.

"The fulfilment you get back is nothing you can put any tangible worth onto - you just feel good."

Charity has always sat at the heart of his family, a core value instilled in him by his naval officer father. His Dad didn't have much money, but he had a good heart and helped out where he could, supporting orphanages and the like.

"When I got my company established I realised that I had this resource of a growing business and I was able to give the green light to the many people who work in the company to choose a cause and to do something. I was amazed at how they reacted to that," said Thompson.

He encourages his staff around the world to pick a charity to which they feel close and then gives them time off to support that cause. And he says the benefit of the good deed ripples through the company. Rather than wasting company time and resources, he says staff come back re-energised from time away from their desks and productivity increases.

"If more companies did this productivity would go up because of the camaraderie among staff. They don't usually get to see each other much outside the office, so you get higher morale and better productivity," he said.

Never short on volunteers, he says staff sometimes get involved in those charitable ventures in their own time, over the weekend, and laughs as he recounts how the various offices almost compete with each other. The critical point, he says, is that staff choose the charity and the activity themselves, so they feel ownership for it. And that's exactly what happened to Thompson himself.

In 2007 he was working out on the treadmill at home and watching the news when he saw an item about teenagers raising money for a school in Asia.

"It moved me so much I got off the treadmill and talked to my wife and said, 'we could do that easily'," he says.

He settled on Cambodia because he could see that the country was stabilising but still not making much progress, and also because he was opening a Crown office in Phnom Penh - the same team could oversee the school project as well as Crown matters. Then he turned to a good friend among the Maryknoll Catholic Sisters in Hong Kong who put him touch with an American nun in Phnom Penh who in turn introduced him to a Cambodian man; "he is just the nicest human being, all he wanted was to help his country."

Thompson monitored the construction and went to the opening in 2008 with his wife, Sally. Three thousand people turned out to celebrate the launch of the school that would accommodate 1,000 students, many of them children who would otherwise have no chance of an education.

Thompson dedicated the school to his mother, Joyce, and had a big picture of her framed. That led to an awkward moment when it was realised that the picture of Joyce was bigger than that of the Cambodian king, but one quickly remedied - the king and queen on one wall, his mum on another.

And as he got closer to the school, becoming more involved, he began to see what else was needed. Thompson provided the school but the government supplied the teachers and he could see that they had limited qualifications.

"My father was from a poor family from New Jersey and didn't get much education and had to work from the age of 13, but he ended up being extremely brilliant because he educated himself, he read and read. So I thought if we can provide books initially - and hopefully computers one day - they will be able to educate themselves," said Thompson.

And that was how he ended up going on to build and fund a library, and then another school and another library. He was on a roll: "It's only when you get close to the charity or the cause that you start to feel the whole feeling of it. To me that's what it's all about."

At the moment he's casting about to build another school. Meanwhile there's the Crown Foundation that he says he likes because it disciplines him to put away a certain percentage of earnings with a view to it being well invested and managed. And his daughter in New York is head of Crown's corporate social responsibility programme, giving direction to the group's philanthropic work.

But there's no doubt that it's the schools and libraries he's set up in Cambodia that have given him the greatest sense of personal satisfaction, above and beyond the other charitable causes he's been involved in over the years. Meeting the children, seeing their reactions and the smiles on their faces is what did it.

"It's a feeling of total fulfilment - my life is worth something, I did something good. And it's completely different from someone saying, 'hey look at all the money you made, can I have some?'"