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Skyline of Wellington, New Zealand, hometown of Wade F.B. Thompson

Skyline of Wellington, New Zealand, hometown of Wade F.B. Thompson

Editor’s Note: Here is how The Dominion Post, a Wellington, New Zealand-based newspaper, reported on the death last week of New Zealand native Wade F.B. Thompson. The headline read: Kiwi motorhome tycoon dies in US.

Wade Thompson, a Wellington-raised and educated motorhome tycoon, has died of cancer in the United States, aged 69.

One of the most successful New Zealanders in business overseas, Mr. Thompson was an old boy of Rongotai College and graduated from Victoria University in Wellington in 1962.

He came close to billionaire status as founder and part owner of Thor Industries, the world’s biggest recreational vehicle maker, based in the U.S.

Thor never lost money in all its 30 years and turned sales of more than US$1.5 billion (NZ$2b) in the past financial year.

In 2004, Mr. Thompson appeared on the cover of prestigious Forbes business magazine in the US as “Lord of the Rigs,” a subtle play on his Kiwi background when “Lord of the Rings” movies were all the rage.

It was a long way from riding a rusty old bike from the eastern Wellington suburb of Strathmore to school in Rongotai.

Old school friend and Wellington businessman Bryan Johnson arrived back in Wellington yesterday after visiting Mr. Thompson last week, just before he died. “He just went down very quickly in the last couple of weeks,” Mr. Johnson said.

Mr. Thompson had been a huge success as a businessman in the U.S.

Thor is worth about US$2b on the sharemarket and Mr. Thompson owned about a third of the firm, making him worth about NZ$800 million and putting him near the top of the New Zealand rich list.

“He has also given huge amounts of money away to the city of New York and various projects,” Mr. Johnson said. “He was determined, full of business integrity, but absolutely driven to be a success. He was a great man.”

Mr. Thompson died of cancer late last week. The disease was diagnosed 14 years ago, his company said.

He devoted the past decade to helping find a cure for cancer, founding the “Drive against prostate cancer” in 2000.

It involved two of Thor’s Airstream travel trailers used as mobile medical vehicles to give more than 100,000 free prostrate checks. He was also a big contributor to various cancer programs.

After graduating from Victoria University, Mr. Thompson went on to do a master of science in retailing at New York University in 1965, courtesy of a loan from his old employer in Wellington, men’s clothing shop Vance Vivian.

He returned to Wellington, but soon left, disgusted with the red tape of a “socialist system” of government licensing that almost prevented him from bringing in business shirts to sell.

A customs officer threatened to dump $10,000 worth of shirts in the harbor unless he got a licence. “I took it very personally,” he said in an interview with The Dominion Post in 2004.

“I thought how in the world can this system work here?”

Mr. Thompson founded Thor in 1980 with American Peter Orthwein, its vice chairman, with the acquisition of Airstream, the renowned travel trailer builder.

The first two letters of their last names combined to form Thor.

Mr. Thompson is survived by his wife, Angela, also a New Zealander, from Blenheim, whom he met in New York, and their two children.