Sigrún Davíðsdóttir's Icelog

Historical parallels in the Thor’s saga

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Iceland is a country where people have a strong sense of what family they belong to and most people know their family history quite well. Now that the story of Thor Jensen and his offspring Bjorgolfur Thor Bjorgolfsson is about to premiere as a film, it comes to mind that Jensen’s story is no less controversial than the one of his great-grandchild. There were people who thought that Jensen was a ruthless businessman who left losses to others while he himself walked away unscathed.

In 1907 Thor Jensen founded a company with another entrepreneur, Petur J Thorsteinsson. Thorsteinsson was at the time probably the richest Icelanders. He made his money up in Bildudalur in West Iceland running a shipping company and fishing and fish-processing company. When his businesses were at their biggest around 400 people worked for him. Quite something at a time since the population of Iceland was, in 1900, 78.000.

Thorsteinsson was an illustrious name and the new company he founded with Thor Jensen was called PJ Thorsteinsson & Co. Thorsteinsson had a long relationship with the Danish banks at the time and had been several decades in business. The aim of the new company was to get a share capital of ISK1m, at the time the size of the Icelandic state budget. They never quite reached that goal but the company was nicknamed ‘The Million Company.’ It built up a harbour at Videy, the tiny island off Reykjavik, and a vast empire related to fish-processing, even with a train running on the island to transport coal, salt and other goods.

Jensen and Thorsteinsson could combine their plans and ambitions in one company but it turned out that they could not work together. Thorsteinsson left the company though it still bore his name but he left his capital in it. Jensen now ran the company but four years after Thorsteinsson left, it went bankrupt. Thorsteinsson lost most of his once so vast wealth. Jensen was more fortunate, with his wealth if not intact then at least not badly dented. At the time, there was an investigation into the affair, where Jensen famously couldn’t remember a thing about the whole debacle.

Many years later, after Thorsteinsson had died, Jensen wrote his autobiography. He had now regained his memory and squarely blamed everyone except himself for the bankruptcy. Mostly he blamed Thorsteinsson even though the bankruptcy happened years after Thorsteinsson left the company. This was before the era of offshoring and it was pretty clear who had lost and who hadn’t.

Stories run in families in Iceland but the families of Jensen and Thorsteinsson became related through marriages. It’s been a quiet consent in both families not to discuss the demise of ‘The Million Company’ at family gatherings. The story was later told in a book, published in 1990, about the ‘Bildudalur King’ by Asgeir Jakobsson. The minor shareholders of Landsbanki and others who lost money on Landsbanki, such as pension funds, might be amused, or not amused, by the strong parallels of Jensen and his great-grandchild who from the beginning of his business entreprises was strongly drawn to the story of his forefather.

This is a family with spectacular success and no less spectacular bankruptcies, as is born out by ‘The Million Company,’ by Bjorgolfsson’s father who ran the shipping company Hafskip aground in the 80s and then father and son being the main shareholders of the now collapsed Landsbanki and Straumur, not to mention bankruptcies related to them such as the travel company XL and Eimskip.

The Thorsteinsson’s family might not be too amused by the story in the new film on Thor’ saga, if this film recycles only the Jensen saga from his autobiography. Historically aware viewers will wonder if the film is yet another example of plus ça change.*

*This log was inspired by a conversation with a descendant of Thorsteinsson who wanted to make me aware of the fact that there is another side to the Jensen’s own story of his success. Icelanders have long a long memory when it comes to families.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

August 19th, 2011 at 1:34 pm

Posted in Iceland

3 Responses to 'Historical parallels in the Thor’s saga'

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  1. An opinionated blog like this requires proper groundwork to hold water. Basing it on being „ispired by a conversation with a descendant of Thorsteinson“, omitting all historical references, does not reflect a great deal of professional pride in a journalist.
    The main problem of the Million Company was the schism between the Danish financier owners, in particular Aage Möller, on the one hand, and the Icelandic owners Petur Thorsteinson and Thor Jensen on the other. Not only did the Danes never fullfill their financial committments, leaving the company short of funds, they also insisted on micromanaging the company from abroad, in spite of having no experience with Icelandic fisheries or the marketing of Icelandic products. The insistence of the Danish owners on having their way finally brought the company to its knees.
    The lesson of the Million Company is not about individuals, it is a lesson of national dimensions. The Icelanders realised how essential it was to manage their business themselves and avoid unnecessary and cumbersome Danish intermediaries.
    Ms Davidsdottir´s comments about Thor Jensen are unsubstantiated. It is common knowledge that Thor Jensen was one of the most influential pioneers of commerce, fisheries and farming in Iceland in the early 20eth century. This is something that can be easily verified. He was also an honest and decent man, as reflected in contemporary accounts, even of political opponents. While autobiographies may be a unilateral source of information, a relatively reliable indicator of a person´s decency is how he treats his employees and the loyalty they express towards him. By those standards Thor Jensen was an exceptionally decent man and widely respected in the Icelandic society. A person´s honour should not be treated lightly – being inspired by a conversation is not enough.

    Guðrún Pétursdóttir

    20 Aug 11 at 1:04 am

  2. I am not going to claim to be an expert on this but the argument you are using to debase the article is one and the same, hearsay.
    In the ages in question not many people had the option to speak badly of their employer, and written observations where most likely written by other folks of means. The saying that history is often written by the winners springs to mind. Another saying that springs to mind is that there are two sides to every story.
    If the easily documented stories all show one side I am glad that the other side of the story is being documented as well. I am sure the truth lies somewhere in the middle.


    24 Aug 11 at 3:33 am

  3. I am puzzled by Ms Pétursdóttir’s diatribe. By its very nature, a blog is meant to be venue for quick or informal or partly collected thoughts & ideas. Or a ‘first draft’, if you will. A blog entry is not meant to be a rigorous doctoral thesis nor is it expected to be. I did not find anything egregious about Ms Daviðsdóttir’s present entry where she reports on an aspect of the Jensen story.

    On a lighter note – reports just out from Libya say that Gaddafi wants to turn Libya into “volcanoes, lava and fire.” That is, he wants to turn Libya into Iceland. I wonder if G has been secretly spending time with Icelandic wunderkinds like Jón Ásgeir et al.

    Rajan P. Parrikar

    24 Aug 11 at 5:38 am

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