William Thorsell: “You have to understand what segment of the market you're in, whatever market you're in. Who are you for?”

"You have to understand what segment of the
market you're in, whatever market you're in.
Who are you for?"

 

“I was born in 1945, right at the end of the Second World War, which was a good time to be born.

My first full-time job was as manager of the Western Canada Pavilion [at Expo 67]. I was only 21, and it was kind of a miracle.

When I was living at Princeton [as assistant dean of the school of public and international affairs], I would occasionally write a letter to the editor of The New York Times. And as soon as a letter would appear, I would go into my office in the morning and people would say, “My God, I saw your letter in the Times today.” I realized you could reach all these people overnight in journalism. I mean, it was 24-hour turnaround. And print allows you to be much more nuanced, much more detailed. I thought it was a perfect combination of language, ideas and access to readers.

I came to Toronto in 1984 to join The Globe and Mail.

My first big discovery was how loose a connection The Globe and Mail had with its subscribers. And I said to the publisher, “How come 66% of the people aren't needing us every year?” It wasn't a very loyal audience.

The fundamental thing was to think about the readers and to really think through, from their point of view, how they spend their days. We're not actually sellers–we're purchasers. We're in the business of buying time. At the end of the '90s, we were up to a 76% rate of retention.

The museum is a newspaper in slow motion: your curators and your researchers go out and gather information–and try to present it in a way that is very engaging to the public. There's no point having great information that people don't want to come to see.

You've got to go out and earn your own way in the marketplace now. I like to say, “You're not being privatized–you're being marketized.” In 1991, the province gave the Royal Ontario Museum about $21 million. It's been frozen since 1995 at $18.5 million. So after inflation, it's down to about $13 million.

This private-public partnership–that's the new formula for a lot of things. Governments don't have the capacity anymore to be the sole funders of all this.

It means that all of these institutions have to start saying, “OK, what do we have to do to create a landscape of desire?” That's what I call it. Why would you want to go down to the ROM a couple of times a year, three or four times a year or even more often, instead of once every 10 years?

Renaissance ROM is the name of our transitional project here. It's really a venture capital project. We're going to take $227 million in capital, put it into the ROM, and that will generate an entirely new business case. We will double our paid attendance and we will generate more income. Right now, if we had no debt, we would generate a surplus of $3 million a year in the first year.

This is a very urban project. We're going to make it very transparent. The building flows right out into the street. Great architecture is a lasting legacy.

There were 25,000 members when I got here, and we got it up to 29,000 just as we started going into construction. They know there's a great future coming.

I would like to leave a much more secure institution economically. We have to create such an increased value proposition that people will really swarm the place. And then that will sustain it.

I used to say at the Globe: We were never punished for raising the bar. You're only punished for lowering the bar.”

Timeline: William Thorsell
Toronto, ON
Born July 6, 1945, in Camrose, AB
Writer and editor; CEO, Royal Ontario Museum

1967: At 21, becomes manager of Expo 67 Western pavilion in Montreal. Heads protocol at Canada pavilion at Expo 70 in Japan.

1975: Launches his journalism career at the Edmonton Journal, where he becomes associate editor in 1977.

1984: Moves to Toronto to join The Globe and Mail's editorial board; is appointed editor-in-chief in 1989.

2000: Becomes president and CEO of Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum; forges public-private partnerships to run the facility.

2002: Announces a massive $200-million renovation of the ROM, including a radical redesign by architect Daniel Libeskind.

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