At 74, Jimmy Pattison focuses on long term

Monday, June 2, 2003


VANCOUVER -- The walls of his plush Vancouver head office are a pictorial celebration of the life of Jimmy Pattison, the billionaire chairman and driving force behind Canada's third-largest private company, Jim Pattison Group.

The gallery includes Jimmy playing a church organ for an amused Aline Chrétien, Jimmy dressed in Roy Rogers-style cowboy garb, Jimmy with former president Ronald Reagan, Jimmy handing over the keys to a customer at his first car dealership.

The row upon row of pictures are a subtle reminder that Pattison Group is his creation, and even though it has 26,000 employees, offices in 10 countries, and operations that range from grocery and magazine distribution to entertainment museums, it is still he and he alone who runs the show.

Sounding youthful at 74, Mr. Pattison returns his own phone calls and remains accessible to reporters who might want to ask him about his future plans.

But at a time when his publicly owned rivals are under pressure to disclose activities, he clearly prefers the competitive advantages of not having to tell anyone what he doesn't want them to know.

"In private companies you can hide your mistakes," said Mr. Pattison, during a rare interview in his 16th-floor office. "You quit worrying about this quarter, this half, this year," he said. "At private companies you only have to worry about the long term."

Colleagues say it is precisely this philosophy that has enabled him to use the Vancouver Pontiac dealership he acquired in 1961 as the launching pad to build a diversified private conglomerate with annual sales of $5.5-billion.

"He thinks on a long-term basis about what a company needs to be as good as it can be over the long term," said Nick Geer, a former tax accountant and a senior Pattison Group executive for 18 years until being named president of Insurance Corp. of British Columbia last year.

During that period, Mr. Geer said he cannot recall a single year when the Pattison Group didn't go through some sort of expansion. "Jimmy is all about growth," he said.

Speculation that Mr. Pattison is bidding for both a 55-year lease on a 109-kilometre stretch of British Columbia's Coquihalla Highway, and Bombardier Inc.'s recreational products division, indicates that his firm will continue to grow.

But he refuses to comment on any of that speculation or even say how long a man of his age can continue to run such a large enterprise.

"We take things one day at a time," he said.

When pressed about the retirement issue, he reiterates his standard response that a succession plan has been in place for 25 years.

Although his son, Jimmy Jr., is an executive vice-president with Mr. Pattison's Ripley Entertainment chain in Florida, it will be up to the board of directors to decide what to do if his father retires.

"I don't think Jimmy has any intention of retiring," Mr. Geer said.

He says his former boss rarely drinks, has never smoked and in his view remains fit enough to cope with a workload that includes regular flights in the company jet to operations in Eastern Canada and the southern United States.

"Time logged on airplanes is the price you pay for living in Vancouver," Mr. Pattison said.

A recent jaunt included overnight stays in Edmonston, N.B., Jackson, Mich., and Montgomery, Ala., where he met with officials from his magazine distribution, outdoor sign, Ripley's and packaging divisions.

One Pattison Group employee says his boss has established a culture where everyone is expected to work extremely hard. "There is never any opposition to holding meetings on Saturday and Sundays," the employee said. But Mr. Pattison insists that if his managers are required to travel during the week, they are usually home with their families by the weekend.

"There are sometimes exceptions to that rule, but generally speaking, we always try to be home by Friday night," Mr. Pattison said.

While remaining mum on his expansion plans, Mr. Pattison is more forthcoming about his humble beginnings in Saskatchewan and early years spent in the east end of Vancouver.

An only child, he says he started out by helping his father go door-to-door "de-mothing" pianos for customers who were charged $2 per session.

He later sold everything from garden seed to adhesive tape before getting into the auto business, first as a car washer and then as a salesman.

He bought his first dealership in 1961 and was a millionaire at the age of 39.

In the interview, he chuckled while recalling the days when as a used-car dealer, he usually fired the worst-performing salesman at the end of each month.

"The first guy I ever fired, he cried and I cried," said Mr. Pattison, who insists that he was actually doing the unfortunate salesman a favour by moving him on toward a job to which he was more suited. "He was a nice fellow, but he wasn't selling cars."

What sets the Pattison Group apart from many other companies, Mr. Geer said, is that it operates with a flat rather than a hierarchical management structure.

Vice-chairmen Kirk Henderson and Michael Korenberg, the most senior officials in the company next to Mr. Pattison, are responsible for financial and strategic matters. "But all the presidents of the various operating divisions report directly to Jimmy," Mr. Geer said.

Mr. Pattison keeps track of how the companies are doing through a regular flow of financial statements that Mr. Geer said contain the type of numbers that tell him where the company is going "in a line or two."

Every year, senior managers from the entire company assemble for three or four days at "Partners in Pride" meetings [usually in a Palm Springs hotel] where they talk, eat and play games together and focus on how the entire company is doing.

It is at these meetings that Mr. Pattison captures what might be happening globally and asks his managers to challenge the prevailing economic climate.

If they don't meet the challenge, they aren't encouraged to stick around.

"What we do is keep moving non-productive assets out of the company," Mr. Pattison said. Does that mean personnel? he is asked. "Oh, of course," he replied.

But there is another side to Mr. Pattison, which colleagues say the public seldom sees.

During the interview, he was interrupted by one of the roughly 150 people who call him every week to ask for financial assistance. He advises the caller to get in touch with Maureen Chant, the Pattison Group executive assistant who has worked with Mr. Pattison since the early 1960s when she was a bookkeeper at his first car dealership. "She is the one who makes those decisions," he tells the caller.

"Once a year, he takes some of his old pals from the days before he struck it rich for a day trip on his luxury yacht," Mr. Geer said. In spite of his wealth -- Forbes magazine says he is personally worth $2.2-billion (U.S.) -- he carries his own baggage when boarding flights, drives his own car [a two-door white Cadillac] and lives in the same West Vancouver home that he and his wife, Mary, have occupied for more than 35 years.

He still plays the trumpet. "Although not very well, mind you," he said.

When it is suggested that he could continue running the company until he is 80, he refuses to be drawn.

"I don't know," he said. "It is up to the Lord."