Jim Pattison
Credit: Jim Pattison Group

Six decades into his business career, the billionaire still sees plenty of opportunity

At 93, with no sign of slowing down, Jim Pattison still heads into his downtown Vancouver office seven days a week. From there, he presides over a diverse international business empire that grew from humble beginnings in 1961 to post $12.7 billion in revenue last fiscal year—a 16.5-percent jump over 2019. Canada Wide Media chair and CEO Peter Legge chatted with the chief executive of privately held Jim Pattison Group, which employs some 51,000 people, about where he came from and where his company is going.

What would you consider your greatest business achievement?

The first car dealership that we got. I had no money, and I had $7,000 in equity in my house, and General Motors gave me a Pontiac-Buick franchise at 18th and Cambie that was not doing well. That would have been the most important transaction in my business life.

Is this just legend, or is it true that when you started your sales meetings at 8 or 8:30 in the morning, you’d lock the door on whoever wasn’t in there?

Always. We always start on time. Sometimes we start early, but never late.

You always stand up to meet someone, to shake their hand and welcome them. Is that a habit you’ve had all these years?

My mother and dad were very strong on being polite and courteous to people. And of course, I’ve been selling all my life, and as you know, the customer is king. So it’s always good to be positive and friendly with customers.

In the beginning, were your parents your main role models?

Absolutely. We didn’t have any money, but I can tell you that I couldn’t have had better parents than my mother and father.

Who are your role models today? Who do you look to for inspiration?

Anybody that’s positive, upbeat, isn’t crying all the time about how bad things are. I like people like that….You look at the people that are successful in life, they’re the people that are upbeat, not the people that are always whining and kicking about something or other. There’s always something that’s not right with everybody sooner or later, so it’s important to take a positive attitude.

What does it take to be a Jimmy Pattison?

It takes time at the banks to borrow the money. I’ve spent most of my time at the banks trying to loan money to see if we could do business and grow the company. So I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for the Canadian banks.

Where do you think you can take the Pattison Group in the next five to 10 years?

Heck, we’re concentrating on building business right now. As soon as the border gets straightened out here in the next few days, I’m going on a trip to the States to see if we can buy a company that we’d like to buy down there. So we’re in the business of growing the business.

Besides the fact that you love Vancouver and B.C., is there one reason you’ve stayed right here in this city?

My mother. When I first started, we decided that it was much easier to do business in the States, and to grow the business, which we wanted to do. But I was an only child—my dad had died, and my mother was getting up in years, and I didn’t want to leave her here by herself. So I stayed in Vancouver and kept this our head office.

What aspirations do you have for the organization?

I’m interested in growing the business, and we’re concentrating on things that are friendly to the environment. Absolutely No. 1 on our agenda today, on everything, is the environment. And as we’re in the car business and other businesses, we’ve got to move more and more to get involved in things that are good for the environment. And so we as grow the business, the No. 1 [question] we ask ourselves now is, Is this positive to the environment? Is it negative?

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Is there one aspect of how the pandemic affected your business that surprised you the most?

Our billboard business. We do outdoor advertising. We’re on buses, we’re on subways across Canada. We’re the largest outdoor company in Canada, and we have leases with airports and transit systems and property owners where we have billboards. And they’ve all got long-term leases on them—like, five, 10, 20 years. When the pandemic came along, most people cut their advertising, but you still have the leases we’re responsible for. So the business that was hit the hardest here overall has been the billboard business.

You told me that you were surprised at how many used cars you sold.

When the pandemic came, people did not want to ride in the buses, they didn’t want to be in carpools. And so people bought new cars, and the people that didn’t buy new cars, there was a big lift in used cars.

What advice do you have for young people who want to make the best use of their lives?

I would encourage them to do what they like doing. If you like playing the violin, well, get involved in music and enjoy what you do. I go to work every day because I like going to work. It’s fun talking to people like you and meeting people, and that’s what I do. If you like what you do, you’re usually good at it.

Going forward, what is your prayer for you, your family and your business?

I always pray every day. I go to church on Sunday. And that doesn’t make me perfect, by any means, but I believe in God and the Christian faith. I think the main thing is that you try to be fair. Now, that’s a disagreement sometimes with people, what is fair. But the main objective, personally, is to get up in the morning and enjoy what you do. And of course, your health is very important.

The other thing my mother always taught me is to be sure you pick good friends, because they have a strong influence on you. I always remembered that, and so I always tried to make sure that over the years when I was growing up that not only did I like my friends but my mother liked them, too.

What challenge is left for you?

We’re just getting started. We’ve got lots of opportunities coming. We always have some kind of trouble, and so our job is to try to stay out of the trouble as much as we can and grow the business. And get up every morning and can’t wait to go to work.