Julian Ogilvie Thompson, the silver-maned business legend famed for heading three major South African companies at the same time, died on Aug. 11. He was 89.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Thompson, known as “JOT,” was a towering figure—both physically (he was 6-foot-4), and because he led a trio of mining giants: De Beers, Anglo American, and Minorco.
Thompson was born in South Africa, the son of that country’s chief justice. A Rhodes Scholar, he joined the Anglo American Group in 1956. In 1957, he became personal assistant to its then-chairman, Harry Oppenheimer, whose family owned both De Beers and Anglo.
Thompson was “very large and very difficult,” wrote Harry’s son Nicky years later, but “my father…knew Julian was someone special who, with nurture, would make a real and important contribution to Anglo and De Beers.”
After working in Anglo’s finance department, in 1966, the 32-year-old Thompson joined the De Beers board. In 1982, he became De Beers deputy chairman.
In 1983, Thompson became chair of Minorco, which ran the Oppenheimer family’s mining interests outside Africa. Two years later, he was appointed chairman of De Beers, succeeding his mentor, Harry Oppenheimer. In 1990, Thompson took on a third role, as CEO and chairman of Anglo American.
In 1997, after 12 years as chair of De Beers, Thompson handed the reins to Harry’s son Nicky, with Thompson taking on his old job as De Beers deputy chairman.
In 1998, he oversaw the merger of two of the companies he headed—Anglo and Minorco—and switched Anglo’s listing from Johannesburg to the London Stock Exchange. In 2000, he stepped down as chief executive of Anglo, and served as its nonexecutive chairman until 2002.
That same year, he stepped down as De Beers deputy chairman, though he remained on the board until February 2008.
Even post-departure, his influence was still present: In 2006, Gareth Penny, who once served as Thompson’s personal assistant (and who was also his godson and fellow Rhodes Scholar), became De Beers CEO.
Thompson later served for eight years as a trustee of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation, which supports the development of young leaders, one of Nelson Mandela’s three official legacy organizations.
Through it all, he remained “a model of British understatement,” as The Independent wrote in 1992, “from his pale blue public-school voice to his unexciting tie.” (A glimpse of Thompson speaking can be seen here.)
On LinkedIn, James Campbell, the Botswana Diamonds managing director and a former De Beers employee, paid tribute to his old boss: “JOT had a prodigious memory, deep insight, and an immense presence. Some called him aloof but I remember when he came to the opening of the Tswapong diamond mine in Botswana, where he still found time to warmly chat to my 8-year-old daughter.”
De Beers said in a statement: “Julian, along with many other visionaries from his and subsequent generations at De Beers and Anglo American, held the conviction that business could and should act as a catalyst for positive change.… His visionary leadership will be profoundly missed, and on behalf of all at De Beers and Anglo American we extend our deepest condolences to his family.”
Thompson is survived by four children: Christopher, Rachel, Anthony, and Katharine; 12 grandchildren; and one great-grandson, according to a death notice in The Telegraph. His wife, Tessa, died in 2020.
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