Meet Norwegian property mogul Olav Thon
It is Friday afternoon. Olav Thon’s head office in downtown Oslo is quiet. Many of the staff have already finished their workweek and are off for a back-to-nature weekend in a log cabin far from the city. But not
This is Olav Thon
Family: Lives with former court judge Sissel Berdal Haga, no children
Occupation: Property developer, Group CEO of Olav Thon Gruppen
Career: Started by selling fox pelts to furriers, then opened his own furrier operation in Oslo. He went on to develop hotels, shopping malls, and other enterprises. In 2013, he donated his entire fortune to the Olav Thon Foundation, which is tasked with further developing the group’s business activities and contributing financially to social causes. He has been awarded Knight First Class of the Royal Norwegian Order of Saint Olav and Commander of the Royal Order of the North Star in Sweden.
Olav Thon. He has just returned from a business trip and is waiting for his next meeting to begin. He may be 92 years old, but that doesn’t mean he’s thinking of retiring.
“I come into the office between 7 and 8 in the morning, spend my days in meetings all day, and go home at around 6pm,” he tells Scandinavian Traveler. “A 10-hour day is normal for me. I love work.”
Thon speaks in an old-fashioned way. His language is sophisticated and precise, his grammar archaic. People in their 20s have probably never heard anyone conjugate verbs the way he does, the way they used to do in the village of Ål in Hallingdal where he’s from.
He may have a connection to the past, but Thon is tougher than most old-timers. He is chairman of Olav Thon Gruppen (OTG), which owns hotels and shopping malls in Norway and abroad as well as an airport and a chemical factory. He manages it himself.
In 2014, OTG had net sales of NKr8.8 billion ($1 billion) and employed 3,160 people.
“I can’t be everywhere every day, but not a week goes by without my knowing the sales and other developments at each location,” he says. “When it comes to investments in OTG, not much happens without my yes or no.”
‘When it comes to investments in Olav Thon Gruppen, not much happens without my yes or no’
His business activities have made him one of the richest men in Norway, and he has even made the Forbes list of the richest people in the world. Not bad for a farm boy who didn’t even complete his formal education.
“I wanted to study medicine, but then the war broke out in Europe in 1939,” he says. “My parents didn’t think it would be safe for me to move away from home, so I stayed in Hallingdal wondering what to do. There were a number of fox farms in the area, so I took some fox pelts with me and went to Oslo to sell them.”
The industrious young boy made progress, step by step, and a year later Thon opened his own furrier operation in the western outskirts of Oslo. By then, he had definitely flown the nest, far away from life on the farm.
“Business was so good that I opened a branch in the center of Oslo the year after,” he says. “When I was in my 20s, the building where my store was was put up for sale. I bought it.”
It was actually an entire building on Karl Johans Gate, the main street of Oslo, now the big Arkaden shopping mall. All in all, he paid NKr1.4 million for it, but he put up just NKr80,000 in cash and borrowed the rest.
“I was an interesting customer for the banks and I have always found it easy to get credit,” Thon says with the cunning wink that he is famous for. “I have always made my repayments on time.”
The risk didn’t worry him. As a student of history, he knew property values tend to go up.
“Take farms in Hallingdal,” he says. “A couple of hundred years ago, you could buy them for a few measly dollars. They have been going up in value all the time, apart from a couple of hiccups, such as in 1929 and 1990. So I never thought it was a risky buy. It is a case of having physical assets. Banks that complain about being stuck with property don’t have a big problem.”
Even so, he admits there are big risks involved in starting a company.
“SAS took a risk when the three countries joined forces to start an airline,” he says. “People who talk about other people who start a company to make money underestimate them.”
‘If I were to give one piece of advice to young people who want to be a success in business, it would be to work hard and be punctual’
In Norway, people who make millions also make enemies. Thon, too, has been criticized for many things by politicians, journalists, and authors.
“I am relaxed about those kinds of things,” he says. “I have great faith in my own ability. Does that sound a bit arrogant?
Thon is famous for his thriftiness. “I personally drive a Volkswagen and have only got one pair of skis and one bike.” And for his red wool hat, knit for him by his life partner, Sissel. Turning it inside out he shows us a note with his phone number and the following important message: “NKr500 reward.”
His frugality has been a constant companion in all the 75 years that have passed since he arrived in Oslo.
“I have very little administration,” he says. “The entire system is based on everyone doing a job that is necessary here. Including me.”
It is about long-term thinking and perseverance at the same time.
“To be a success in business, the most important thing is to keep several balls in the air,” he says. “When I have bought a property or entered a new sector, I do everything I can to develop it further. I don’t sell something just to earn a few kroner or invest the money somewhere where the return can be poorer.”
He points to the purchase of Unger, a factory in Fredrikstad that used to make soap. The Norwegian industrial group Borregaard took over the factory when the founder died before selling it on to an investment company. Thon acquired the company when it was on the brink of bankruptcy in 1992. Today, the company manufactures and exports chemicals for the cleaning industry and turns a profit.
That took a great deal of effort. But sell it? No. You have got to be determined, says Thon. Never give up.
“While everyone around you is changing their mind about who is in charge, the underlying business principles remain the same,” he says.
By 2.30 in the afternoon, Thon shows no signs of winding down. On Sunday he’s going to open a new building he donated to the Norwegian Trekking Association. The cabins can be freely used by trekkers, and an overnight stay is inexpensive.
“He loves the great outdoors and has spent a lot of time in Norwegian nature,” says Nils Øveraas, secretary general of the Norwegian Trekking Association. “He is a firm believer in the simple life. And has helped us build more than 100 cabins, available for the general public.
“He gets involved in almost every detail of the construction process,” Øveraas adds. “For example, while the cabins are intended to be of a basic standard, he thinks people should have good mattresses to sleep on. As a person he is mild mannered and playful, in many ways he reminds me of Norwegian philosopher and environmentalist Arne Næss.”
Thon makes no fuss about the money. “You can’t take it with you when you die,” he says.
And with no children to inherit his empire, he donated his entire holding of OTG to a foundation set up in his name in 2013. The foundation is tasked with managing OTG and supporting scientific research and entrepreneurship.
“Some people build a family business, but I want OTG to support interesting activities,” he says. “I think science is an exciting and important subject. My dream was to study medicine, but if I had become a doctor I probably would not have practiced medicine. I would more likely have built a hospital.”
Outside the office window, a tower crane is working on a building site.
“That’s one of my cranes,” he says. “It’s good to see people still working this late on a Friday.”
Text: Inga Ragnhild Holst
Published: February 10, 2016