February 22, 2023

Billionaire Jimmy Pattison is 94 and goes to work every day. What’s his secret?

Written by Trevor Cole
The Globe and Mail
The Globe and Mail

There was a time, back in the 1960s, when Jimmy Pattison seemed to most Canadians like a magic trick. He was driven by unknown forces. “A jumping-bean of a man” is how one writer put it. One minute he was the owner of a car dealership, and practically the next, he was a “tycoon.” He’d bought an underachieving company selling outdoor illuminated signs and turned it into a conglomerate.

A Vancouver newspaper called him a billionaire long before he’d actually achieved that status; it just seemed inevitable. By the mid-1980s he owned nearly 40 companies, all related to consumer goods or services, and still he wasn’t satisfied. He was the kind of rich man who owned a yacht luxurious enough to host Prince Charles and Princess Diana, yet still checked the coin-return boxes of every payphone he passed.
The latest Forbes estimate puts his net worth at close to $15 billion, though he never took the Jim Pattison Group public, so it’s hard to know for sure. His value as an example of what any Canadian with an insatiable appetite for business success can achieve, however, might be immeasurable.
We chatted via Zoom from his office in downtown Vancouver.
Okay, go ahead and shoot.
Here’s my first question. You’re 94 years old, and you’re still CEO and chairman of the company you started about 60 years ago. Why are you working and not out on your yacht somewhere?
Well, first of all, because I owe the banks money. That’s a good start on it. But the reason I do what I do is ‘cause I haven’t found anything I like doing better. I like going to work every morning. In fact, when I get off this deal with you, I’m on my way to Saskatchewan, where we just built a new building for our John Deere dealership in Humbolt.
You once said, “You don’t have to be smart to make a lot of money, just as long as you’re not too stupid.” Is that true still?
If I said that, I don’t recall saying it. To make money, you have to find the opportunity, and then you have to execute.
Back when you started in the ‘60s, you had a Buick dealership and a radio station. Then all of a sudden you started buying a whole bunch of businesses. It was like you were struck by lightning. What triggered that?
What is that?
Young Presidents’ Organization. It was a deal, both in Canada and America, for people like me, that got together and had meetings.
You were inspired by YPO.
I was inspired. When I joined this organization, the B.C. group belonged to the American part of the organization. And the Americans tend to be very aggressive, in many cases, in business. And when I saw the vision these people had, with no money, it gave me the opportunity to grow.
You once said that what held people back was a lack of courage. Where did you find your courage?
Well, I can tell you, the Royal Bank loaned me $40,000, and I got started with a car dealership in Vancouver. That was my start. And so, I spent my whole life borrowing money, paying it back, and investing it in something that I had a rough idea I could make some money with. And some have worked, and some have not worked.
Was there ever a time when your courage failed you?
That’s a very definite answer.
That doesn’t mean I didn’t make a lot of mistakes. Failures, I’ve had my share of those. But it was never because I was afraid to get up in the morning and try something new.
Since we’re talking about mistakes, do you want to tell me what you think your biggest mistake was?
I would say my biggest mistake was going into a high-tech deal I knew nothing about, with a bunch of people. I bought this company, and it was high tech, I didn’t understand the business, and the people were not competent. I probably paid a million and a half for it or something like that. I lost it all. That taught me a great lesson—to be sure I know a little bit about what I’m getting into.
If I were starting out right now and had my eye on making $1 billion, what advice would you give me?
Well, No. 1 is always be honest, no matter what. And if you’re borrowing money from the bank, you gotta have a good reason for where the money goes and why, and how you’re gonna pay it back. Work hard, be honest, and when you make a mistake, don’t try to prove you’re right. Don’t keep hitting the nail with the same hammer. Just move on. If you find out you’re not a carpenter, quit and do something different.
I’m sorry to keep throwing your old quotes back at you, but you once said, “Deals are made in dark rooms and strange places.” Is that still true?
No. I don’t even remember that quote, if I said it. But usually when we were doing a deal, it would be a small little family business, and it could be in a farmhouse. It could be in a garage. It could be in a car. But it wouldn’t be in a fancy boardroom like I’m sitting in right now. The deals we do today involve more money and sophisticated people, and we usually have lawyers on both sides, and all of that.
As you were building your empire, a lot of people admired you. Was there a peer or business figure whom you admired?
There certainly was, and I can’t recall who they would be. There was one in Texas—I can’t remember his name today. And then there was a bunch of people, mostly Americans, that came from nothing.
Did you ever look up to Warren Buffett, as an investor?
Absolutely, Warren Buffett’s in a class all by himself.
You don’t see any similarities between you and him?
Warren Buffett, by the way, sent me a picture one time, unsolicited, with a note written on it. And I got to know Warren Buffett. Now you’re talking to somebody that really knows what he’s doing.
Since the 1960s, you’ve been through a number of recessions. What is your opinion about where the economy is headed this year?
That we’ll get through it, and things will be fine.
Are you doing anything special to prepare for a possible recession?
We’re not doing anything special, but we’re cautious of being sure that we’re not over-leveraged, if things go wrong.
You used to make a distinction between business people in the West, and those in the East. You felt that westerners were more trustworthy. How do you feel these days?
I don’t recall ever saying that they’re more trustworthy. The people in the West, I have found, will take more chances than the people in the eastern part. They’re more risk takers than the people that I’ve dealt with in the eastern part of the U.S. or Canada.
Well, the Expo turned out to be a success, and I was just one of the volunteers. We had hundreds and hundreds of volunteers in British Columbia that worked in the World’s Fair for nothing, and I was just one of them.
Weren’t you pretty instrumental in making things happen?
Well, I was running the fair, and it was my job. But you don’t do it alone. You hire people that contributed, and we had a lot of support from the B.C. government, the Canadian government. It turned out to be successful, but the government of Canada and British Columbia were the people that deserved the credit. (3)
Did your Expo experience ever inspire thoughts of running for political office?
It did. One night at nine o’clock, my phone rang at home, and the party that was in power at the time offered me the job as premier.
Oh, really?
I don’t even remember telling anybody that story before. But Maureen, my assistant, remembers. (4) They called at nine o’clock—a lady by the name of Grace McCarthy. She was a cabinet minister and said, “Jimmy, the premier’s gonna be retiring, and we’d like you to take the job on.” I remember it very well. It was at night, and I was on a speakerphone, and my wife heard the call. “Oh, Jimmy,” she said, “you should do that.” And I slept on it, and decided, no. I was gonna stay a businessman.
And you never considered it again?
I have, ‘cause I’ve had opportunities two or three times, to go into politics. But I decided that I would stick with trying to make money. And not for the interest of making money for money’s sake, but it’s what I like doing.
Looking back at your career, what is your proudest achievement?
I’ve never thought of it. But I got married in ‘51, and I’m still married. Same wife. (5) And this is 70-some-odd years later. I would say probably my biggest accomplishment was staying married, working at night, travelling all over the deal, and still having the same wife when I get home tonight. I got married in 1951 in Moose Jaw, Sask.
What’s your favourite part of doing business?
Going to work in the morning. Usually the two things I deal with are the problems, and the opportunities.
You’ve said many times that you never had any interests or hobbies outside of business, and you seemed proud of that. Is that still true?
I’ve never had any hobbies, but I’ve had outside interests. I spent years playing the trumpet. At one time, I played in the most famous boys’ band in Canada, and they travelled all over the United States, England. And then I learned to play the piano a little bit, so then I played in the church orchestra, and I played in the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, and I played in bands at UBC. I had a good time with that. (6)
What kind of music did you like playing?
I was basically raised on gospel music. But anything that—”Home on the Range”—anything that was popular. I learned to play without music, although I took music lessons for years, but I basically learned to play by ear. That was easy for me.
When you think about all the deals you’ve done, what was the best one?
The best one was the first one. I bought a General Motors franchise that was a three-pump gas station, and a two-car showroom. The dealership was not doing well, and the owner wanted out, and General Motors gave me the opportunity. I needed $40,000, and the Royal Bank loaned it to me, ‘cause I didn’t have a dime. And I went into business, and that’s the best deal I ever did.
How big a role did luck play in your success? Timing? I’m saying luck.
Well, I’m saying timing. I would say that I’ve been very fortunate with timing, because I didn’t start anything when the whole world was crashing in a depression. It’s the key, ‘cause I’ve always been highly leveraged. Borrowing everything I could, up to the last few years, where we have a lot more of our own money, if you like. So, it’s been the Canadian banks and the American banks. I wouldn’t be here today, talking to you, if it wasn’t for the bank system, and two or three of the managers that took the risk on me.
You’ve been asked many times about your succession plan. The fact that you are still in charge, at 94, suggests you never got around to making one.
You are dead wrong. We’ve had a succession plan ever since I got to 75 or so. I’ve always had somebody coming along that was ready to be a successor, including today. (7)
Do you want to name that person?
No, I’d prefer not to name him, because I may change my mind, if it doesn’t work out.
I think I know what you’ll say to this, but I’ll ask anyway. Is a life spent acquiring businesses and building wealth an attempt to pursue happiness?
No. I like what I do. It’s been something that has turned out well for me. Listen, I’ve made more mistakes than anybody I know, but you don’t live with them. If you make a lot of decisions, you’re gonna make mistakes, usually. But on balance, it’s turned out okay.
I really enjoyed our conversation. Thank you for your time.
Well, Trevor, thank you for your time. I appreciate the opportunity.
Evaan Kheraj/The Globe and Mail
1. In 1969, when Pattison was buying company after company, a Vancouver businessman who was asked about him said: “He’s so efficient he scares me.”
2. Buffett’s net worth is roughly $150 billion, a little over 10 times Pattison’s.
3. The World’s Fair, whose theme was transportation and communication, drew 22 million visitors—triple the number who attended Expo 84 in Louisiana.
4. Pattison’s longtime assistant, Maureen Chant, confirms that Grace McCarthy, a powerful cabinet minister in B.C.’s Social Credit Party, did ask Jimmy to run for premier to replace Bill Bennett in 1986 or ‘87.
5. His wife’s name is Mary. They have three children—two daughters and a son, Jim Jr., who is president of Ripley Entertainment.
6. Pattison played with The Kitsilano Boys Band.
And according to Chant, Pattison did indeed play trumpet with the VSO for several years.
7. There was speculation that former B.C. premier Glen Clark would take over—he was president for 10 years. But he stepped down in January, a move Pattison said was in the works for a long time. The new president is Ryan Barrington-Foote, a 45-year-old accountant.
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