The 2019 Top 100 All-Stars: Jim Pattison Group

It's always risky to judge a book by its cover—or a man by his plaid jacket. But everything you need to know about 90-year-old Jimmy Pattison is evident, instantly, in the grip of his handshake. You know what handshakes are like. Some are too weak, some too strong—some people hold on...

Credit: Courtesy of Jim Pattison Group

The conglomerate that Pattison launched in 1961 remains B.C.’s biggest private company by revenue in our latest Top 100 ranking

Almost six decades into his business career, Jimmy Pattison shows no sign of stepping away from the diversified multibillion-dollar empire he built. What keeps him going?

(Hint: It isn’t yachts and vacation homes)

It’s always risky to judge a book by its cover—or a man by his plaid jacket. But everything you need to know about 90-year-old Jimmy Pattison is evident, instantly, in the grip of his handshake.

You know what handshakes are like. Some are too weak, some too strong—some people hold on way too long. And, among men over 80, even the most robust usually offer something tentative—fragile bones wrapped in papery skin you wouldn’t dare squeeze. But the five-foot-six-inch Jimmy Pattison still takes your hand with the strength and confidence of a 32-year-old car salesman. The grasp is rock solid—not a hint too pushy—and the minute you feel it, you know two things absolutely: first, you could do a deal with this man; and second, he’s in amazingly good health.

We’re looking out from the 18th floor of the Shaw Tower on Cordova Street, admiring Vancouver’s harbour and the North Shore Mountains from the head office of the Jim Pattison Group (holding steady at No. 3 on this year’s Top 100 list). The reception room is like a cluttered study, filled with the awards Pattison has won, the books people have given him and, in the corner, models of every private aircraft he’s owned since he brought the first Learjet to Canada in 1969. When I mention his age, he shrugs and says: “Ninety. Well, I never thought about it, but it showed up.”

And it’s barely slowed him down. “I travel all the time in my job,” he says. “Nothing’s really changed for me. I try to work some part of every day. I come in early in the morning, and I go home a bit earlier than I used to—at 5:15 or 5:20.” Every night he’s in town, Pattison says, he takes his wife, Mary (née Hudson), out to dinner. They met at Bible camp when they were both 13 and have been married for 68 years. So, seriously, nothing’s changed.

Yet the private conglomerate that Pattison began to assemble in 1961 with the purchase of a General Motors Co. car dealership (“a two-car showroom and a three-pump gas station”) now employs 46,000 people in 541 locations around the world and reported revenue of $10.6 billion in fiscal 2018.

There’s no making sense of Pattison’s mix of businesses. In addition to the car lots (25 locations, 12 brands, 24,000 vehicles sold in 2018), he owns grocery stores (Save-On-Foods, Buy-Low, Quality Foods), coal terminals (Westshore), radio stations (Jim Pattison Broadcast Group), sign companies (Pattison Outdoor Advertising) and theme parks (Ripley Entertainment). And befitting a company that also owns the Guinness World Records operation, every Pattison asset comes with a superlative. His massively expanded Canfor Corp. (No. 12 on this year’s list) is now the largest global producer of sustainable forest products. Canadian Fishing Co. annually harvests more than 100 million pounds.

No matter who it is, you phone back

Asked what ties all these operations together, Pattison says only, “One thing’s led to another.” He seems to be the polar opposite of the modern corporate raider, the type who snaps up companies, strips their value and sends all the jobs to China. Rather, Pattison Group president and COO Glen Clark says that Jimmy’s strategy is: “Buy, keep management and grow the company. We’ve been successful with that. We buy good operating businesses and try not to sell too many.”

Besides, Clark says, “We like the diversification. At any given time, one or two companies might be going through trouble; diversification gives us strength.” And as Canada’s second-largest privately held company, Clark says, they get to make, and stand by, long-term decisions. “Being private gives us the ability to look beyond the next quarter.”

Clark, who was B.C.’s New Democratic Party premier from 1996 to 1999, says Pattison is also an exemplary boss. “He’s patient, disciplined. He gives everyone a chance to do well. That’s why our average length of service is so high.”

This wasn’t always the Pattison reputation. Paul Grescoe, the as-told-to writer behind the 1987 book Jimmy: An Autobiography, confirmed then (and now) that, as a young entrepreneur, Pattison regularly sacked his poorest-performing salesman. (As Grescoe says, “They were all men in those days.”) But both Grescoe and Clark defend the practice, saying you’re not doing a failed commission salesperson any favour by keeping them in a job that will never pay. They say that Jimmy wasn’t punishing underachievers, he was doing them a kindness.

This, then, gets to an interesting aspect of Canada’s fifth-richest man (Forbes says he’s worth $7.7 billion): Jim Pattison has no critics. Actually, that’s an overstatement. For example, there are many who resent the breadth of his influence in the B.C. fishery. But unlike most business moguls, Pattison has no horde of angry detractors waiting by the phone to say uncharitable things.

David Baines, the retired Vancouver Sun columnist who for decades tracked bad behaviour in the B.C. business community, says Pattison has escaped criticism on two counts. First, because the Pattison Group is privately held, “It’s very difficult for outsiders to scrutinize his deals.” Second, Baines says, Jimmy “always returns reporter phone calls. Reporters feel flattered when the top guy responds.”

Glen Clark (who’s also excellent about returning calls), says that’s true: “It’s a rule in our office: no matter who it is, you phone back.” But Clark offers another explanation for Pattison’s resilient reputation. “Jimmy’s so ethical. It sounds like I’m biased—and actually, I am biased!—but he really is. Jimmy always says, ‘Try not to do anything we wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the paper.’ He has a strong sense of values.”

The power of giving

This certainly seems to be expressed in Pattison’s philanthropy. The Jim Pattison Foundation gives away millions—or tens of millions—every year. For example, in 2018, the foundation committed $75 million to the new St. Paul’s Hospital and $50 million to the now-state-of-the-art Jim Pattison Children’s Hospital in Saskatoon, where he was born. In the late 1990s, he gave what was then a head-snapping gift of $20 million to prostate cancer research in Vancouver, and he used that donation to leverage so much additional health-care money out of the provincial government to accelerate construction that the main building of Vancouver General Hospital is now known as the Jim Pattison Pavilion.

When I ask Pattison if these gifts gave him particular pleasure, he says, “Well, no. We’ve always—as most businesses do—given money to different causes.” But this may reflect modesty more than disinterest. As Grescoe reported in the Pattison biography, from his earliest days as a door-to-door garden seed salesboy in East Vancouver, Pattison has tithed: he’s given 10 percent of his income to charitable causes. But Clark says the boss doesn’t go looking for credit, even if other people insist on putting the Pattison name on libraries and buildings he has supported.

Really, it’s difficult to get Jim Pattison to admit that anything gives him as much of a thrill as just turning up for another day at the office. (“I like what I do. I don’t consider it work.”) One of his most famous indulgences is the 150-foot yacht Nova Spirit, which he bought in 1999 for US$25 million. If you stand close to the window, you can see it from the Pattison Group reception room, though Pattison himself is not one to gaze longingly at the view. “I don’t go out on the boat very often. We use it for entertaining customers, suppliers and special guests. But I don’t use it personally.” And, to be clear: he doesn’t fish.

He also doesn’t spend much time at the Rancho Mirage estate near Palm Springs that he bought in 1995 from Frank Sinatra. As with the boat: “We have meetings there. We bring customers there.” A cynic might wonder if Pattison is defending the tax deductibility of a holiday asset, but Grescoe says it’s a fair characterization of Jimmy’s passions. “The only extracurricular activity I ever saw that gave him pleasure was the trumpet. He really loved playing, and he was good. If he was going to take over someone’s company, he would take them out for a cruise and play the trumpet.”

As we are nearing the end of the interview, I ask Pattison about his plans for the future, to which he answers—without a hint of irony—”Oh, we’re just getting started.” Asked whether he’ll ever retire, he fairly snaps: “I hope not.”

Then, as I am about to leave, Pattison says, “Wait, you haven’t met Maureen,” and he turns us toward the office of Maureen Chant, the woman who has been his executive assistant for 56 of his 58 years in business. Chant is famous as Jimmy’s gatekeeper, a second and highly trusted set of eyes and ears. In a senior management group that is otherwise exclusively male, everyone acknowledges that she has always been the No. 2.

Sitting in her office, which is tucked in behind the reception area, Chant exudes confidence and efficiency, somehow appearing both warm and brusque at the same time. As we step through her door, she already knows who I am and why I am here, and she asks immediately if I got everything I needed. I say yes and ask: Is she ever going to retire? Chant pauses and looks to Jimmy, as if to check for an update, and then she says: “I hope not.”

As mentioned, the Pattison Group is a private company: you can’t buy shares. But if you could, I’d suggest that it would be on everybody’s “buy” list—as a long-term hold.