About this Episode
Chairman at Crown Worldwide
Jim Thompson is the Chairman at Crown Worldwide, an organization which provides strategic Assignment Management Services and complete Relocations for multinational companies and government organizations. Thompson started the company in 1965, when he decided to go to Yokohama, Japan. Since that time Crown has grown into an extraordinary global business that has helped millions of families relocate their lives throughout the world.
In this in-depth interview, Jim describes how his life changed dramatically when he decided to take a gap year in Japan, and how he started Crown with just a $1000 in his bank account; Jim shares his opinion that not everyone has the personality or the temperament to work in a service business; explains why he never flirted with Crown being a public company as he wanted to maintain the culture of the company; admits that he is by nature a pure globalist; and shares his perspective that people will continue to move around from location to location.
Brian Friedman: Hello, and welcome to season two of The View from the Top, a podcast brought to you by Benivo. My name is Brian Friedman and I'm the strategy director of Benivo, the world's leading welcome as a service mobility tech company. My guest today is none other than the legend that is Jim Thompson, the Founder and Chairman of Crown. Jim is an American by birth, but a Hong Kong resident for over 40 years. Jim graduated with a degree in, believe it or not, aeronautical engineering in 1962, but decided to seek his adventure and his fortune in Asia. He arrived in Yokohama in Japan with just $1,000 in his pocket shortly after graduating. But soon he saw a gap in the market for an international relocation company.
He launched Crown in 1965. Yep, that's over 50 years ago, and the rest is history. Today Crown employs over 5,000 people in 54 countries and 264 locations. Aside from operating the relocation space, Crown also has sizable operations in logistics, document storage, fine art and fine wine storage. Having worked in that industry for over half a century, Jim Really is a legend, and we are so honored to have him on our podcast today. So Jim, welcome to The View from the Top and congratulations on everything you've achieved with Crown. Jim, welcome.
Jim Thompson: Thank you very much Brian. I'm delighted to be here to chat with you for a little while.
Brian Friedman: Thanks Jim. So let's just start with where things are today. Just tell us a little bit more about yourself and in particular, you've been at the helm of Crown for, well, over 50 years. What's your role today?
Jim Thompson: Well, at this point in my life I'm pretty much ... and the title is Chairman, I'm the Chairman of the group. And I get involved mainly with acquisitions or property, property acquisition, so that sort of thing. But I leave most of the day to day running of the business to a very talented team that we've developed over a lot of years. So, it takes a lot of the pressure off, but of course you still have to stay very much in touch with what's going on. So my role is a little bit, I've stepped back a little bit, but very much in tune with what's going on in the company and in the industry.
Brian Friedman: Okay. Well, let's talk about those earliest days. I'm sure that many of us if not all of us dream of having that idea, and then doing the dream of a thousand dollars in the pocket and then creating a business that is a multi, multi million dollar revenue business and such a sizable company around the world. Tell us about those earliest days. Tell us about what actually encouraged you to leave America and go to Yokohama in the first place. Why did you even go there and what was the thought process in those really early days when you were just, the idea was just burgeoning inside you?
Jim Thompson: Well, first of all I was going to university in California and we do four years of university. And I took a year off after the third year to travel. It was a strange thing because it was so long ago, we didn't take the airplanes, but just went on surface and ships. And I ended up going around the world with a friend of mine and we really were enlightened by everything we saw, whether it be in the US, in Europe, in the Middle East or, particularly the far East. So when I went back to university to finish my last year, all I wanted to do was to come back to Asia and soak up a little bit more it. I was fascinated with the history and that sort of thing. So that's how I actually got to Japan, got to Yokohama. That was the country I was most fascinated by.
My father worked in a company in the United States that had a moving operation in Yokohama. And they agreed to hire me on a very basic minimal salary, and that was fine with me. But I would say that was my introduction into the international moving business. Most of the business they did was with US military at that time. But after a year and a half my father left the company, I was let go and I was in Yokohama as a 24 year old, trying to decide what to do.
And I did see a market in Tokyo for the international business of moving people's goods. And it was interesting because being in that particular part of the world, it was the less developed part of the worldwide moving business. And it was quite, I would say almost easy to pick up business as long as I made sure that the service was good and the rates were fair. So that's how we got started in Yokohama. I had some very talented young Japanese packers that were with me and we just got our reputation going and it grew from there. So that's how it all began.
Brian Friedman: And then at some point, I think it was 1978, you moved to Hong Kong. So, what's the story behind that?
Jim Thompson: Well, initially when we did our second operation, it was in Hong Kong and it was in 1970. And I did that with a couple of other people, actually a couple of other Americans who I'd met from the Midwest and we set up a joint company in Hong Kong. But by 1978, the company had grown and expanded into Singapore and Malaysia and many countries in Asia, but they had decided to sell out. So in 1978, I was still living in Japan but I decided to move to Hong Kong. Because Hong Kong is such an easy place to do business, that we had set up our kind of regional headquarters down here. And of course as the chairman of the group, I had to be down here. So I made the big move after 15 years in Japan and now married with two children. And I came to Hong Kong and I found it to be just the most fascinating location in the world to do business and to live as well.
Brian Friedman: And you've obviously lived through some pretty interesting times in Hong Kong itself, as it's gone from a British governorship to be reverting to be part of China.
Jim Thompson: Yeah, Brian. That's been a fascinating aspect of it, historical aspect. Obviously 20 years, first 20 years here were under the British rule and then the second 20 years under the mainland Chinese rule. But I think the most fascinating thing about the whole time I've been here, it's just the opening up of China. Because I can tell you honestly when I first arrived in Asia, I never ever expected to even set foot in China, because it was such a closed country. And then in the late seventies and eighties things changed. And who would have ever dreamed that China would go on this miracle development process. So I'd say that, of all my life in Asia and especially here in Hong Kong, that's been the most incredible bit of history that I've lived through.
Brian Friedman: Okay. Now, I know that there'll be many, many listeners out there listen to this podcast who have been truly inspired by you, and what you've achieved, and what you've taught them over their careers. But I just want to turn this around the other way. Who was it that inspired you in your career and what did they teach you as you were starting out in those early days?
Jim Thompson: Well, I'm asked that question quite often and I have to say that whenever I give it some thought, the person that was my inspiration was my own father. He came from a very basic background. His father wasn't around, so he was the only breadwinner. He didn't get much education but he advanced his life to become a senior naval officer in the US Navy. And then he went into business as well. And I used to look at him and I was always thinking he's the smartest man in the world.
But I just saw where he pulled himself up from with no help whatsoever. And I always thought, he's passing that on to me and I have to keep up with that. And I wanted him to be impressed with me as I was with him. Now having said that, there were obviously a lot of people who helped me along the way, who I used to admire their work ethic and the things they were doing. And I think we kind of fed off each other in that regard. So whether I say they taught me something or they just encouraged me, those were the people that in my life that were key in terms of what I was able to accomplish.
Brian Friedman: Okay. And obviously, we were talking about this, there's hundreds if not more people out there who have been inspired by you. But if you were to meet somebody for the first time, maybe starting out in Crown, what lessons that you have learned would you most like to pass on to those starting out in the profession today?
Jim Thompson: Well, it's interesting because when I look at people coming into this particular business or perhaps any service business, I think the first thing they have to acknowledge is that they're happy working in a service business. Not everyone has the personality or the temperament to do that, because we're going to get issues and complaints and whatever. And you have to be able to deal with those in a very forthright manner. So I think that'd be the first point is ask yourself, try to be honest with yourself, is this an industry that I'm willing to work in, it's a service business.And the next thing, I think in hiring people into a company, if we can get the human resource person to bring the right people in. I always feel that we can train them, there's plenty of training programs that we can develop for them. And then I think it's up to management to kind of inspire them, incentivize them or motivate them, to get the most out of them. Because everybody has this incredible potential, but most people don't even know what they're capable of. And so it's up to good managers to be able to draw that out of people and really let them go loose and see what they can achieve. And some of this situation or some of the people I've seen in my own career have just been amazing, timid people who can then turn out to be incredible salespeople or incredible producers for the company. It's really quite something to see what people are made of and how capable they are.
Brian Friedman: And it must be very heartwarming when you see somebody really bloom and flourish and, within your organization. So tell me, I was just wondering about the changes, you've been in this industry probably longer than most of our listeners have been alive, for substantial over 50 years now. So the question I would ask is, you must've seen some massive, massive changes. I mean, you've touched on China as one of them. But what are the biggest changes you've seen throughout your career?
Jim Thompson: Well, I think back sometimes when we first started in the business, the shipping industry was basically what they called break bulk, where you loaded pallets of cargo and it is unloaded inside the ship. And I remember people talking about containerization and I thought, how in the world are they going to change every port facility and every ship to come up with this. But today it's such an established part of the shipping business and it's made it so economical. You see this massive change and you realize that, whether it be in the shipping side or the technology side of how everybody wants things instantly now, and how the industry has sort of just moved along and kept up with that. It's all really positive change at the end of the day but it's going to be an inevitable change. Sometimes I look at the guys packing furniture and I say, "Well, that's the way we did it before."
So some parts don't change that much. But the reality is, in terms of the customer relationship, people want things very, very quickly now than in the past that they were much more patient and understood things were done at a certain pace. But on the technology side, I think the key thing is the instant communication. So early days where letters and telexes and then it went to faxing. And then the internet came along and the computers, and this has just changed everything, remarkably positive changes as a result of that.
Brian Friedman: Okay. Now, Crown itself has actually in some ways stayed very consistent in a sense that it was started by you. It's still owned by you, as far as I know, correct me if I'm wrong. It's never flirted with being a public company. And it seems to have grown very organically. What do you think makes that different? What do you think is the difference between being privately owned compared to being, like some of your competitors might be, publicly owned or venture capital backed.
Jim Thompson: Yeah. Well, you can imagine we've had a lot of offers to take us public or to have other investors. And I've resisted that and I've done it mainly because I wanted to maintain the culture of the company and to maintain, I would say the quality of the work we do throughout. And that's cost us in some ways, cost us in the pace of growth or whatever. But without question, it was the right thing to do in my lifetime because I have seen perfectly good development throughout the world of the size of the business. We maintain the quality that I would want to have maintain. And yet the culture is still there even though we're a global company.
Again, the ability to communicate instantly whether it'd be on the internet or on Skype or whatever, it makes us feel like we're all together. And I think that has been the payoff for me in terms of keeping the company as a private company. I've been in debates about this with many people and I understand the benefits of public ownership, of bringing in more money and many people feel they need that. But in our case, we grew at a very slow and steady pace and it's really paid off for us. So, I think it's the right way to go but it's not the only way.
Brian Friedman: Yeah. Well, certainly let's not knock it. Everything you've achieved certainly shows that you must be doing something right there. So tell me, just moving on a little bit, the future, what do you think the future holds over say the next 10, 15, 20 years, both for the industry and for Crown?
Jim Thompson: Well, it's interesting. I think in terms of relocation and mobility side of business, I'm a pure globalist. I've lived overseas, I've worked foreign countries. And I really believe we're in a global society and I really think that people will continue to move around from location to location for a variety of reasons. Some for business obviously, some for diplomatic and education or whatever, and some just for having another home somewhere. And I think that part will continue. I've seen over this long period of time we've been in the business, we go through some phases where it's very hot and then it slows down a bit. And I'd have to say that in the last couple of years the pace of development has been slower than it has been in past years.
But I think that the true picture is that we live in this global world and people will continue to move. Now for me, one of the biggest benefits is having been in Asia because, I mentioned about China but in fact all of Asia has risen up in their standard of living and their wealth. And yet it still becomes one of the key centers for manufacturing. And I think also there's a lot more democratic societies, sort of democratic societies in this part of the world too. So looking ahead, I would say that really is kind of an Asian century that we're in at the moment. And that a lot of the opportunities for business generally and certainly for relocation business will come out of this part of the world. And so I think there'll be a lot of opportunities but no matter where you're located, I think we're in a business that will continue at a very comfortable pace, will come out of our little down cycle before too long.
Brian Friedman: Yeah. Let's just carry on, I mean clearly you and I'm going to say I, we are sort of deep down [inaudible 00:17:50] we're globalists. And certainly, I sometimes feel that many people grew up in a generation where globalization was considered to be a good thing, and indeed a inevitably thing. But one thing that we're seeing at the moment around the world is an era of rising nationalism or populism of anti-globalist movements. Two obviously extreme examples would be Brexit in the UK and the Make America Great Again philosophy in the US. But we're seeing it in many other countries too, the building of walls rather than bridges. And so my question is this, how do you see this conflict between nationalism and globalism panning out over time?
Jim Thompson: Well, I honestly don't think it's going to change anything. If I were to look at the United States as an example, I know there is a big pounding and they're saying make America great and take the jobs back home and everything. But the reality is virtually no employment in the United States, there's no people to do those jobs anymore, especially if immigration is a problem. And what that would lead to is more international activity, either American companies will have to manufacture overseas or foreign companies will have to come to the United States to do that.
In the case of the European situation, the UK is a great country. People have migrated, the banks have migrated, there in greater numbers and [inaudible 00:19:27] to New York. And I don't, okay, there'll be adjustments and there'll be some offshore service to EU, but it's not going to diminish the United Kingdom after this confusion is over. Whatever the settlement is, it'll all come to a new level and people will go back and take advantage of the UK. I mean in the sense of taking advantage of business opportunities there. And I think everybody will continue on with the new set of rules.
One of the things that I find here of the Hong Kong people that is so unique is they're credibly adaptable. And so if someone were to come in and say, okay, this is the new set of rules. They would just simply not complain they'd say, tell us what the new rules are and we'll play by them and we'll still be successful. And I think that's what we're going to see in this global picture. And frankly, the populism that's going on probably in many cases had a reason to happen. But at the same time, it's probably going to be a cycle, it's not going to go on forever.
Brian Friedman: Okay. Just in terms of, we've talked about technology and there's one area that I wanted to explore with you from a moving company perspective. Which is, I've heard people say that people simply have less stuff than they used to, that if you go back 20 years and you were moving somebody, they probably had a collection of records, they had a big Hi-Fi system with speakers and amplifiers. They had loads of books. They had all sorts of, they had big televisions. While as these days, most of that sort of stuff is actually on the laptop or in the cloud. And also I think people are different in terms of possession. Are you finding any sense that people these days are actually shipping less stuff because they've literally have less stuff than they did say 20 or 30 years ago.
Jim Thompson: Yeah, I would agree with that. I think that is a trend that we've seen. The interesting thing about this human behavior generally is that, as you get a higher position in the company or you make more money and you have more wealth, what do you do with it? And traditionally people have tended to buy nice things that they like to have around them and a bigger house and that sort of thing. I don't think that's going to go away. I think that people will still want to have possessions. I know there is a sort of movement, there's a young Japanese lady that's saying tidy up and clean up your house and all that sort of thing. And I understand it, we all are, we have a lot of stuff around us all the time.
One example I saw was that, I was in New Jersey and I was visiting one of the major accounting firms. And they had this completely open plan office and the man who was taking us around had been with the company for a long time. Obviously he had a desk in an office somewhere but now he just comes to work, sits at any desk, plugs in his computer and each one has a little bit of a locker where they keep personal things and I found that unique. Nothing I could probably get used to really easily but maybe that is the trend of the future. So yeah, maybe people will get used to having fewer possessions. But at the end of the day, it's hard for me to realize that people who have money or have increased their wealth will go out and want to buy some nice things, whether it be furniture or paintings or whatever. So I can't see the future, but I would say that it's going to probably do another cycle and come around where people will have, want to have more things in the future.
Brian Friedman: Okay. And I've seen, you've seen many generations of new starters. What would you say is the main difference, if you like philosophically in terms of outlook between today's new starters and earlier generations?
Jim Thompson: I think they were demanding, I guess it depends on where it happens. I would certainly think in the western world someone coming into a business with a university degree or maybe a master's degree or something, they want to make a lot of money and they want to make it pretty quickly. So I don't think they come in and say, I'm going to work in this company for the rest of my life or I'm going to be loyal to this company. So I think that's a ... But you have to adjust to that. I remember in my own case when the first round of people or some of the first round of people decided to leave Crown organization, I looked at them, how could you do that? How could you leave this great company? And then you come to realize that everybody has forces working on them. Whether it's making more money, getting a big title or responsibility or just moving away.
But then you, as an employer, you just look at it and say, if they were good contributors to me while they worked here, whether it was three years or five years or eight years, I respect them and I appreciate what they've done to advance us a little bit. So I think the new starters today probably are not thinking very long term. They just want to progress as much as they can and some will stay. We have people in our company that have been for 30, 40 years and I'm very grateful to them. But others might leave, look for the next big opportunity. But I think it's less common in the Asian culture than it would be in the western culture to leave a company quickly.
Brian Friedman: Okay. That's interesting. So I just want to move on the conversation and we're talking about here about employees and their different outlooks. And I need to talk about the Asian outlook, it might be slightly different to the western outlook in terms of what they expect from the organization they work with. But one of the things that I think every, certainly the west is talking about is this concept of customer experience. And I think you can move that on from customer experience to employee experience or even to the signee experience. What does your company do to enhance both employee experience for your own employees and customer experience for your clients?
Jim Thompson: Well, let me talk about the customer experience. Just yesterday I got an email and it said that, from one that was around about email that was saying we were hiring a new person and the title was manager of customer experience. And I really hadn't heard that title before so I was quite interested in it. But reality is that in any service business, it's all about that. So whether you're an airline or hotel or a restaurant or a moving company, the whole objective should be for everyone involved, is make sure that customer will want to come back to you again or tell someone else about you.
And so, we just sort of go overboard to communicate and to have, meet the need, we call it going beyond their expectations for that sort of thing. There's a lot of small things that I get letters about that people have done for our customers, our employees have done for our customers, and that's probably as fulfilling as anything. And then you know that the system is working, that people, you've delegated enough authority to your staff for them to make decisions on the spot, so that they can really meet the needs of the customer.
I'm sure that moving companies all over the world have examples, we had one case I always come back to is that, a fellow who's one of our sales guys he is home at night with his children. And a man was at the airport saying, "I must've packed my passport or something." Literally this man who work for us actually went to the warehouse, open the crates and got the carton with the passport and solved the problem. It's sounds amazing, but I think you have to continue to highlight that kind of special activity, but it makes you know that the customer is really so key to your success.
You cannot take that for granted at any stage even when you get bigger. I think for the employees is want to make them feel part of the organization. We have lots of, obviously gatherings, but one of the things that makes me, I don't know if it would surprise you or not, but we put a high stress on, we call it CSR, corporate social responsibility. And we give the green light to our teams around the world to go out and do something for the community. Whether it be for children or for, doing races or walks or whatever.
Brian, the thing that's amazing about that, not only is the recipient the beneficiary of that good, but it's a good binding thing for employees in a company. So some people will sit in the same room and work together all the time, when they're out doing that kind of thing, they come back all energized and excited about it. So I'm a great believer in keeping the team tied together in any way you can. But certainly that's a double benefit if you can do to help other people as well.
Brian Friedman: Absolutely. I couldn't agree more. Just moving on a little bit, if we look forward again over the next 10 years or so, we're seeing the sorts of efficient intelligent robotics, even things like virtual reality, home search. We're seeing all sorts of technology around assessing the surveying of a property in terms of the volumes that have to be moved. How do you think all this technology is going to impact Crown over the next few years?
Jim Thompson: Well, I try to be positive about it. As I said earlier in this conversation that, the world basically has very, very low unemployment now despite the fact that new technology in area of robotics and those things are coming out all the time. And I think also certainly in the countries out here, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and even China, they're saying they're getting lower birth rates. So we'll probably not going to be producing as many people to populate the world as we have in the past. So we're going to need some of this technology just to be as efficient as we have been, whether it be robots, and of course they're in use already.
I don't, I look at our business and whether you call it the broad logistics business or specifically the moving business. I still think that things and people will have to get from place to place. There are some industries that are either going to not go away or are going to be very slow to go away. And I think that the international relocation business will continue to exist. I don't know if there's a huge growth prospects in that, I can't predict that. But certainly I think there'll still be people who will want to live in other areas.
When I look at communities out here as an example and I'm sure it's true in Europe too, you find people who were out for a three year assignment for their business or whatever reason. Then you find some that becomes permanent. They stay on and they get a job locally, and then you get some that are permanent. They just love living in these different communities of Vietnam or Singapore or wherever it may be. And they decide this is my new home. I think that will continue. I don't really see people just saying, I'm going to live in my village forever and that's it. I think they'll just want to get up and go. I have a home in Ireland and the Irish people is 5 million people in Ireland and 70 million Irish diaspora around the world. And they continue to travel and work overseas for a variety of different reasons. And I'm sure that's true in many other countries as well.
Brian Friedman: Okay. We're pretty much out of time Jim, but I've got one last question I wanted to ask you. Your life changed dramatically when you decided to take your year abroad. And that gave you the inspiration to go back and then obviously the rest is history. You became very much an Asia hand. But my question is this, if you had your time again and you look back on your life, what if anything would you do differently?
Jim Thompson: Brian, I think about that from time to time and I guess the answer is probably absolutely nothing differently. I think I've been very, very fortunate in having, first of all, being immersed in an international world. If I hadn't left California, I would be selling insurance or doing something like that for my entire career. And living in a relatively small world. I think that, I do mentor a lot of the university students here in Hong Kong and I do encourage them to get out and get exposed to other societies. Whether you're taking an internship or possibly a part time job. But really understand the various cultures and societies that everybody lives in.
For me, I mean, all of that happened maybe not by plan but it happened. And as a result, I've seen the world from a business point of view and a personal point of view. And I think that is such a big factor in success frankly, in many industries. And even if it doesn't mean monetary success, it's certainly means a total fulfillment and understanding. So I wouldn't probably change much in the way things have gone well for me, so I wouldn't want to adjust them. But I think for others they should really look for opportunities, not just where they live but in other parts of the world because it certainly worked for me.
Brian Friedman: And did your parents never say to you Jim in those early days, you've got a degree in aeronautical engineering, why don't you come back to California and go into the engineering industry or the aviation industry?
Jim Thompson: That's a very good question Brian, because I was the first person in my family as far back as anyone knows that had an opportunity to go to university. My dad lived that through me and he wanted to see his son get that degree and get a executive job at Boeing or whatever company he might work for. And so when I made the decision to go back overseas without a plan, I think he was, I wouldn't say he was devastated. He was just a little bit worried, and ultimately it was fine. But I think in the initial stages he said, "I've given, made all this effort to get him an education and now it's going to be wasted." But in fact it wasn't, I think. I don't think university degrees are the ultimate. I think if you're determined to do something, you can do it as long as you've got a decent, sensible head on your shoulders.
Brian Friedman: Well, thank God you did. And I'm told there's at least 5,000 Crown employees out there who are very, very pleased every day that you decided not to become an aeronautical engineer and that you decided to go to Yokohama. So Jim, all that remains really is for me to say, it's been an absolute honor and pleasure to have you on The View from the Top. Many, many thanks for taking part and congratulations on everything you've achieved in your truly impressive career, and all the best for the future.
Jim Thompson: Thank you very much Brian. I've enjoyed chatting with you and I hope any of your listeners can get anything out of it, it's just give it all they've got. They are capable a lot more than they think they are, and see what they can do with their lives. And so it's been a pleasure talking to you. Thank you for having me on.
Brian Friedman: Okay, thank you again Jim. And thank you to all our listeners for joining us again and we've got another podcast again next week, so thank you everybody.