Island businessman in mentor role at Cornell
A Bermudian businessman is helping students at an Ivy League school to bridge the gap between academic theory and the real economy.
Stephen Thomson is an Entrepreneur in Residence at the at the Pillsbury Institute for Hospitality Entrepreneurship, which is within Cornell University's SC Johnson College of Business in the School of Hotel Administration.
Mr Thomson, who graduated from Cornell in 1982, takes great pride in the appointment by his alma mater. He has been in the unpaid EIR role for nearly two years, interacting with students, offering them guidance on how they should go about turning their business visions into reality.
His next trip to Pillsbury, which is located in Ithaca, upstate New York, will be next week. Sometimes he will speak in a class on a certain topic, usually for 20 minutes or so, and then deal with about 30 minutes of questions from students. He also meets personally with students in one-hour and half-hour slots, when they bombard him with questions.
Mr Thomson finds the sessions invigorating. “These students are between 18 and 22 years old and they're full of energy and ideas,” he said. “I think I get more out of it than the students do!”
He reckons that between a half and three quarters of the students he advises are already running their own businesses. The most frequently asked question he gets is on how to get financing. And students often call him up when he's at home in Bermuda.
Additionally, he has served as a judge in the Cornell Hospitality Business Plan Competition, which offers $25,000 in seed money for the winner.
As a seasoned entrepreneur himself, in property development, dry cleaning, shipping and courier services, and hospitality, Mr Thomson knows that it's not all plain sailing when striving to build a business.
“My favourite saying is ‘never give up',” Mr Thomson said. “You've got to fail three times before you succeed. I tell the students that failures are very acceptable — and don't think of them as failures, but as tries.”
Looking at his own experience, he believes he learnt just as much from the flops as from the successes — and he also learnt that taking care of customers is key to success.
Asked whether it was possible to teach entrepreneurship, Mr Thomson said: “It's possible to teach the skills that can help someone to be an entrepreneur, but a lot of it comes from the gut.
“You will hit roadblocks and you have to be determined enough to find a way around them — and that has to come from inside.”
After graduating from Cornell, Mr Thomson started his career in hospitality, joining the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto as a management trainee. The chain moved him to San Francisco in 1984 and two years later, he opened the Four Seasons Hotel in Newport Beach, California.
A year later he returned to the island to take up a senior manager role with Elbow Beach Hotel.
In 1988, he ventured into dry cleaning with the launch of Just Shirts, which is still in business 30 years later. It was around that time that he pursued an idea with a business partner in Oxfordshire in the UK, to locate dry cleaners at railway stations.
“The idea was that people could drop off their shirts to be cleaned before they caught the train and pick them up when they got back,” Mr Thomson recalled. “We wanted to put them at Didcot and Summertown stations. British Rail loved it. But at the eleventh hour, we were undercut by Sketchley, so we failed.”
At Elbow Beach, he grasped another opportunity, when he started bringing in minibars for the hotel as an outside contractor.
In 1990, he started Mailboxes Unlimited, which started out as a packing and shipping company. In the late 1990s, Mr Thomson noticed a demand from Bermudians to buy from overseas, often through catalogues, from companies that did not ship to Bermuda. They needed a US address, a problem he solved by opening an office in New Jersey to which goods could be sent on their first port of call before being shipped to the island.
With the rise of online shopping, the business has continued to thrive, bringing in “about a tonne a day” of packages to Bermuda, Mr Thomson said.
The entrepreneur built up his dry-cleaning business over the years, both organically and through acquisitions, including Hamilton Val, Paget Drycleaners, Coral Cleaners, Quality Cleaners and Blue Ribbon Cleaners. The business has contracted somewhat in recent years and only Just Shirts and Coral Cleaners survive.
His real estate activities include the purchase of the nine-acre Heron's Nest property in Riddell's Bay, which was then sold off in lots, an enterprise in partnership with fellow Bermudian Stephen Dunkley. He is also involved in a project to build three-bedroom homes on land in Goose Bay, Labrador.
Mr Thomson is also chairman of Bermuda Press (Holdings) Ltd, parent company of The Royal Gazette.
Education has been a longstanding interest for Mr Thomson, who sat on the board of his former school in Ontario, Canada, Trinity College School, for 14 years. He was also on the Pillsbury board for five years.
“Business is not all about making money, it's also about giving back to your community or school,” he said.
Neil Tarallo, senior lecturer, entrepreneurship at the Pillsbury Institute, said that the work of mentors like Mr Thomson would have lasting benefits for students.
“It is well known, and supported by academic research, that entrepreneurs who take advantage of mentors and mentoring programmes are more likely to launch sustainable businesses,” Mr Tarallo said.
“The Pillsbury Institute for Hospitality Entrepreneurship's Entrepreneur in Residence Programme (EIR) was created with this in mind. In addition, our 15-plus EIRs help to provide our students with an understanding of the mindset and behaviours of expert entrepreneurs.
“Entrepreneurs like Steve Thomson provide an invaluable service as we support our student entrepreneurs.”