Crown’s James Thompson tells us why the company’s team is at the core of multinational success
It is no small achievement to found a company and, over 50 years, transform it into a dynamic, profitable organisation with operations in close to 60 countries, and yet James Thompson is quick to share the credit with others.
“The key in any company is to hire the right people, and I have great respect for all our staff,” says the chairman of Hong Kong-headquartered Crown Worldwide Holdings, which specialises in relocation services, storage of corporate records and, more recently, the transport of high-value artworks. “By now, virtually all our employees are younger than me — by a big margin. But they have the enthusiasm, motivation and quality to take the company forward, and that’s the strength of it.”
Looking back, he sees the development of the business — and his own career — in three distinct stages, beginning in the early 1960s in Japan. Thompson’s father was stationed there while serving as an officer in the US Navy, and he had visited the country twice on breaks from studying for a degree in aeronautical engineering. Thompson went on to find work with a Yokohama-based firm handling removals for US military families and, for 18 months or so, was assigned to go and win new corporate accounts.
“Then, about to turn 25, I got this crazy idea about starting a business and holding down some of those corporate clients,” Thompson says. “I had no management training whatsoever, but felt excited about the possibilities and took the attitude that it was simply common sense: get some customers, do a good job, reinvest profits, and give it your best shot. For a young guy in Asia, those were interesting times, but scary too when you start to hire people, have salaries and expenses to pay, and have to make things come together.”
Five years on, the Japan business was on an even keel and, with a view to expansion, the obvious next location was Hong Kong. The city’s expat community was always on the move and, crucially, an American contact provided a timeous introduction to Caterpillar, which promised enough business to open an office. It made profits right away and, as an easy place to do banking, auditing and legal work, Hong Kong subsequently became the platform for expansion to Singapore and further afield.
“Early on, the vision for me was just to make the next week’s payroll,” Thompson says. “But we were a little bit lucky in the sense that Asia was entering a development phase and multinationals were realising they should be there. We were a resource for them and, once we had the pieces of the operation in place, we were always able to get good young staff.”
Today, Crown is in 265 locations around the world. A series of strategic acquisitions gave it a global reach and, with that, a new set of challenges. Wherever possible, Crown aims to operate wholly-owned businesses in each location with existing or local trucks and warehousing. But where there are problems like corruption, bureaucracy or political instability — or if the market is simply too small — it makes more sense to work through subcontractors rather than putting dots on the map just for the sake of it.
“I was comfortable doing things in Asia, so having to manage a global business covering Europe, Africa and elsewhere was a steep learning curve,” Thompson says. “Little by little, though, you realise it is not as fearsome as it might first appear. As we expanded geographically, we kept rethinking the basics, making improvements, and looking for ways to develop new ventures.”
One such venture was conceived when it became clear that multinationals wanted an additional service to help relocated staff settle into new surroundings. They were looking for local know-how and practical assistance with things like leasing and furnishing apartments, finding suitable schools, learning about local culture, and expense management. For Thompson, it was only logical to start offering this as an extra service.
In addition, the company saw great opportunity in transporting fine art and statues for museums, galleries, auction houses and private collectors. This started in France and, since then, has also taken off in other parts of the world.
“It is always a challenge to develop to a high point and then bring a new type of business into your formula and see if you can make a success of that too,” he says. “In general, it is important to keep the company entrepreneurial, maintain the can-do spirit, and not let things become overly structured. We want everybody to feel they have a direct involvement in the development of the business and can bring good ideas forward. We drive quality like you wouldn’t believe and realise if we are not ‘on the edge’ all the time, other competitors will come up behind,” says Thompson, who makes a point of listening to staff of all ranks. and responsibilities .
When not working, Thompson pursues his new interests in Irish history and, as someone who has always lived in cities, in the wonders of the natural world, from the estate he has bought and renovatede near Waterford.
“My dad’s ancestors were all from Ireland; I got a genealogist to do some research, went with my wife and son, and felt quite comfortable there. The house has been completely wired for Wi-Fi, so I can operate from there and, from next year, will try to spend more time watching the plants and animals grow and getting to know the community.”
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Trust in the team.