Helping Young Entrepreneurs Avoid the Icebergs


Peter Thomas heard about the opportunity to purchase rights to Century 21 in Canada from a fellow member of the Young Presidents' Organization (YPO). That was 1975. By the time he sold the company in 1987, he'd grown it to 9,000 salespeople, 450 offices and $9 billion in sales, the largest real estate network in the country.

"The reason I'm so passionate about YPO," says Thomas, "is because most of my success is attributable to what I call the O-Zone: World Presidents' Organization, Young Presidents' Organization and Young Entrepreneurs' Organization."

The YPO "University"

Thomas, 66, spent seven years in the Canadian Army and was working for First Investors Corporation when – impressed by his boss’s passion for YPO – set his sights on qualifying as a member. In those days, that meant you employed 50 people and generated sales of at least $12.5 million. He qualified at age 33 as owner of Samoth Capital Corporation, a Vancouver real-estate investment firm.

Thomas, whose formal education ended with high school, calls YPO his "university."

"YPO gave me a group of people with whom I could share my war stories and innermost secrets, close associates further down the track than I was," he says. "You can avoid the icebergs if you talk to the captain who's already been there."

YPO also gave Thomas his "epiphany." Shortly after qualifying to join in 1974, he attended a YPO seminar in Hawaii at which the speaker talked about setting one’s goals in alignment with one's values.

In the aftermath, Thomas asked himself: If I value health and family, why am I putting in 15-hour days? If I'm happiest on Vancouver Island, why am I living in Edmonton? If I believe mentoring has been key to my success, what am I doing to fulfill my obligation to give back?

Once again, he found answers in the O-Zone. In 1987, a member of the Association of Collegiate Entrepreneurs asked him to speak at their gathering in Florida. And oh, by the way, said the caller, we don’t have any money to pay you. Moved by their enthusiasm, Thomas agreed to fly in at his own expense. Quickly, he realized, these young entrepreneurs were too young and their companies too small to qualify for YPO. Yet they had no peer group. By the end of the day, Thomas and his hosts had founded the Young Entrepreneurs' Organization, with Thomas as its first chair.

The Mentoring Network

Since then, he's literally traveled the world at his own expense helping to start and grow YEO chapters, of which there are now more than 120 in 40 countries with nearly 6,000 members. Thomas recruited the first YEO international president, Bill Trimble, as well as several of his successors, and shares his time and expertise as a mentor to YEO board members on an ongoing basis.

He can't say exactly how many checks he's written, how many universities he's visited, or how many presentations he's made on behalf of YEO.

"I'm always selling YEO," he says. "I've made hundreds of presentations.

"I've been fortunate to have mentors – people I can lean on and talk to when challenges come up – most of my business career. As entrepreneurs, we tend to think our challenges are unique when, in fact, many of the problems are the same…not enough money, not enough sales or not the right people."

Today, as a WPO board member and Mentor Advisory Board chair, as well a YEO trustee and International Advisory Committee chair, Thomas wants to make sure there are always enough “old guys mentoring the young guys."

His efforts have paid off handsomely. In little more than a year, mentor pairings have more than doubled, from 300 to more than 700. A textbook and DVD, including case studies, has been developed to help mentors and mentees get the most out of their relationships. He has also spearheaded the creation of a central registry to expedite mentor-mentee connections and is beginning work on an initiative to promote mentoring through the life cycle, starting with the young adult offspring of WPO members.

Thomas has written about entrepreneurship in two books. In Never Fight with a Pig, he shares lessons from his business experiences. In Windows of Opportunity, he writes about sales and marketing.

Thomas also has close ties to the University of Victoria. Since 1997 he has supported the Peter Thomas Innovation Project, in which graduating business students compete to see which team can make the most money in 10 days.

"They get some phenomenal business ideas," says Thomas, who plans to roll the program out all over the world, starting with the University of Vancouver, the University of British Columbia and the University of Arizona, and is also setting up a program to connect top business students with YEO members.

An Operations Manual for Life

Video Clip

In this video, this video, learn about Peter Thomas' LifePilot program, and how the proceeds from this enterprise contribute to an understanding of mental illness.


Thomas appears to have led a charmed life, but it hasn’t all been easy. Thomas lost his son, Todd, an artist, in 2000 to suicide.

"Up to that point, I had a blessed life," he says. "There was nothing I encountered I couldn’t get over. So I decided I would honor and celebrate Todd's life."

In December 2001, Thomas donated $1 million for a crisis-response unit for mental health at Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria. The Todd Thomas Foundation, based in the U.S., focuses on mental health issues. The Canadian Thomas Foundation targets more child-related programs.

Funds for these and other philanthropic activities come from Thomas's most recent entrepreneurial endeavor, a program called LifePilot that introduces participants to the values-based goal setting strategies that have guided his own life. In effect, LifePilot adapts the mentoring model to help others create what Thomas describes as "an operations manual for your life."

Being a mentor, says Thomas, is "not unlike watching your children grow. There's nothing better than knowing that the advice you gave helped someone on the road to success."

© 2006 Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. All rights reserved.

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