Olav Thon Entrepreneur of the Year

The 95-year-old real estate and hotel magnate is one of Norway’s richest people

Rasmus Falck
Oslo, Norway

Olav Thon

Photo: Even Schjenken / Evenphoto
Olav Thon in an April 30, 2013, photo. Now 95, the real estate, hotel, and shopping center tycoon is one of Norway’s richest people, who gladly pays his high taxes, still works, and donates millions to charitable causes and research. Here he proudly wears his trademark red hat, made by his life partner, former court judge Sissel Berdal Haga.

Olav Thon, named the 2018 Entrepreneur of the Year by the Seed Forum, grew up as a farm boy who only went to the city to sell fox pelts. He bought his first building in 1951 and opened his first restaurant in 1966. He became a shopping center, real estate, and hotel magnate and was listed in the Forbes list of billionaires as the 198th richest person in the world, with a net worth of $6 billion, as of March 2013.

He was born in 1923 on the Thon farm in Vats in Hallingdal, Norway. As a little boy, he tended the cows in the outlying fields and helped herd them out into the summer pastures. As soon as he was old enough, he became a haymaker. He earned his first coin by rowing tourists over Djup Lake. He was extremely interested in trade. At 8 years old, Thon ordered Christmas cards from a mail-order catalog based in Oslo and went around selling them. At 18, he became the owner and manager of the fur shop, Volvat Pels, on Sørkedalsveien in Oslo.

Switching to real estate investments and hotel management, Thon eventually became one of Norway’s richest people and probably the country’s largest tax contributor—happily. During the shipping crisis in the 1970s, Strømmen Stål (Strømmen Steel) went broke. Thon bought the building without any plans for future use. After a while, he and the American ambassador launched the idea to turn it into a shopping center, today’s Strømmen Storsenter.

Olav Thon

Photo: TomasEE / Wikimedia
In the 1970s, Olav Thon purchased a closed steel factory and eventually converted it into a shopping center, Strømmen Storsenter, shown here in May 2011. Thus began his shopping center empire.

Today, his hotel chain encompasses more than 70 hotels in Norway, Brussels, and Rotterdam, The Netherlands. From the start in 1989, the model was to establish centrally located hotels offering affordable room rates. The chain was rebranded to Thon Hotels in 2005. Today, with freshly refurbished hotels and enhanced service, the hotels give a “full package” experience. Thon also manages 90 shopping centers in Norway and 11 in Sweden, some of them close to the Norwegian border. Of these, 77 are owned or partly owned by Thon. His total profits before taxes were NOK 2.3 billion in 2017.

Olav Thon

Photo: Brage Aronsen / Wikimedia
A sign outside one of the Thon hotels on April 13, 2011. The chain offers centrally located hotels at affordable room rates.

In 2013, Thon transferred most of his assets, worth NOK 25 billion, to the Olav Thon Foundation. The objective is to exercise stable and long-term ownership of the Olav Thon Group AS and to distribute funds to charitable causes. Each year, approximately NOK 50 million is donated, mainly to research and outstanding teaching in the mathematical, natural sciences, and medical fields.

A year ago, the American chain Foot Locker, with more than 3,300 outlets in North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, opened its first outlet in Norway. At the opening, CEO Richard A. Johnson met Thon, then 94 years old, who owns the building. It ended with a pair of jogging shoes for Thon. The building on Karl Johansgate was the first one Thon bought, in 1951, for NOK 1.7 million.

Thon is an outdoorsman and an honorary member of the Norwegian Trekking Association. There are no yachts or private jets for him. He invests his profits to increase their value and provide jobs for the people and tax revenue for the government. Thon was anointed Knight First Class of the Royal Norwegian Order of Saint Olav and Commander of the Royal Order of the North Star in Sweden.

Some years ago, Hallgrim Berg wrote the biography Olav Thon: Billionaire in a parka. He is also from Hallingdal, served as a member of the Norwegian parliament for 24 years and as president of the Norse Federation. The book was published in English by North American Heritage Press. The blueprint for success is there.

Rasmus Falck is a strong innovation and entrepreneurship advocate. The author of “What do the best do better” and “The board of directors as a resource in SME,” he received his master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He currently lives in Oslo, Norway.

This article originally appeared in the February 22, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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