The Jim Pattison Group
The Jim Pattison Group
Sales: C$4.6 billion (2000)
NAIC: 551112 Offices of Other Holding Companies
The Jim Pattison Group is Canada’s third-largest privately owned company, a multinational conglomerate with interests spanning a wide range of products and services, including grocery store chains, automobile dealerships, broadcasting and print media companies, packaging and signage operations, financial services, and other enterprises. The Vancouver-based company is owned by CEO and founder, Jim Pattison, who has directed every step of the company’s growth, including impressive annual revenue increases from just over C$2 million in 1961 to over C$4 billion in 2000.
Jimmy Pattison: Entrepreneur Extraordinaire
No history of the Jim Pattison Group is complete without discussion of its colorful, prominent, and controversial owner, President Jimmy Pattison. Pattison’s influence on British Columbia has grown to such an extent that comedian Bob Hope once described British Columbia as a suburb of Jim Pattison. In a 1998 article for the Financial Post, Keith Damsell postulated: “It’s virtually impossible to spend a Pattison-free day in the province.”
Born in Saskatchewan, Pattison’s family moved to British Columbia during the Great Depression. Pattison’s entrepreneurial career began in 1935, when at age seven he sold seeds door to door. Other early jobs included bellhopping, washing cars, and delivering newspapers. On V-E Day in 1945, Pattison was called to work to deliver a special edition of The Province newspaper. Ever the entrepreneur, Pattison bought 100 copies himself and later sold them as souvenirs.
Later, while studying Commerce at the University of British Columbia, Pattison was distracted from his studies by his side-line of selling cars to his fellow students. Sensing a lucrative future in automotive sales, he dropped out of school a few courses short of his degree and went to work for a car dealership in Burnaby. Pattison’s serious business activities began in 1961 with the purchase of the Burnaby dealership. By the turn of the 21st century, that little business would become a multinational empire covering several industries.
Pattison’s business philosophy is said to be encapsulated by the tenet “no partner, no shareholders, no relatives.” Analysts suggest that by keeping sole ownership of his ventures, Pattison is better able to keep his mistakes to himself and to maintain a long-term view of his enterprises. With a preference for moving quickly and acting independently, he has avoided the lure of the more rigid public market. Throughout Pattison’s career, he has demonstrated a pattern of investing heavily in publicly traded companies, then buying out the shareholders.
Anecdotes about Pattison abound. One of the more widely told involved his unique tactic for motivating his sales force back in the days of his first car dealership. According to a Business in Vancouver special edition, “Business Leaders of the Century (1998),” the entrepreneur would simply fire the lowest achiever at the end of each month. Depending on the source, Pattison is either a ruthless business man or a “nice guy, devout Christian and family man.” Those advocating the latter perspective point out that he has been generous to a fault, donating both time and money to good causes and public works. In the early 1980s, some even began to refer to Pattison as a pornographer, after he purchased a magazine distributorship called Mainland Magazines. Public outcry from the women’s community erupted at the discovery that approximately 250 pornographic magazines were included among the thousands of publications that this company distributed to British Columbia retailers. Stating that the content could be distributed legally in British Columbia, but admitting to finding the magazines personally offensive, Pattison promised to sell the company. However, the sale did not go as quickly as the public had hoped. When it later became known that Pattison was negotiating to sell Mainland Magazines to a business associate, the outcry and personal attacks continued.
Pattison’s pragmatic approach to business was also visible when a former CBC journalist, Russell Kelly, published a highly unflattering biography of Pattison. In a review of Pattison: Portrait of a Capitalist Superstar for the Province newspaper, Pamela Fayerman noted that the book “paints him as a greedy, porn-peddling hypocrite.” After another book firm sold the first run of 6,000 copies very quickly, Pattison’s Main-land Magazines decided to handle the book and took over its distribution. Pattison reported that he had not found time to read the book himself, adding that he left marketing decisions to his employees.
Regardless of its detractors, The Jim Pattison Group is among Canada’s largest corporate donors, and one-tenth of the entrepreneur’s personal income is directed to charities. Pattison is said to have slipped a C$1 million dollar check into the collection plate of the church he attended and also to have donated C$25 million to a private Christian school. In 1998, Pattison donated C$25 million to a New York Business Association to help clean up the area and also gave C$20 million to prostate cancer research. Moreover, the entrepreneur also became known for spending time and effort on good causes. In the 1980s, he accepted the position to chair Vancouver’s World Trade Fair, Expo ’86, for a fee of C$1 a year. At project’s end, amid criticisms of his ruthless managerial style and well-publicized allegations of conflict of interest activities, Pattison brought the C$1.6 billion project in C$32 million under budget.
As Pattison and his family have learned, there is a price to be paid for public prominence. Shortly before Christmas, 1990, Pattison’s adult daughter was kidnapped. Pattison paid a ransom of C$200,000 for his daughter’s release. Shortly afterwards, eight kidnappers were arrested and convicted. Five years later, another man was charged for attempting to extort C$2 million from Pattison and of threatening death or bodily harm.
A person of many interests, including playing the trumpet and the organ, Pattison has also become notorious for his personal shopping sprees, which have included the purchase, for US$4.6 million, of Frank Sinatra’s former home in Palm Springs, California, complete with furniture and Lionel model train collection. (The home was later designated for business use.) At an auction sale, Pattison bought John Lennon’s psychedelic Rolls Royce for US$2.3 million. The Rolls was installed in the British Pavilion at Expo ’86 and later donated to the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria. Other purchases have included a US$1 million selection of Marilyn Monroe memorabilia, later included in the holdings of Pattison’s Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! entertainment and museum chain. The memorabilia included a traveling makeup case and color snapshots of Monroe’s dog, Mafia.
However one views Pattison’s approach to business, no one can deny the success of his enterprises. Business in Vancouver described Pattison as “The quintessential West Coast entrepreneur,” concluding that, “At the end of the century, Pattison is easily the most recognized and influential business leader in the province.”
History of an Canadian Conglomerate
The roots of Jim Pattison Group stem back to the late 1950s when Pattison ran a car lot for a man named Dan McLean. In addition to setting sales records, Pattison convinced McLean to invest in the largest neon sign in North America. The sign proved significant, not only because it stood for almost 40 years, but also because it set the wheels in motion for what later was to become Pattison’s Signage Group.
In 1960, Pattison was offered the chance to go in on a business deal with McLean’s son-in-law. The deal would have made him a million almost immediately, but Pattison turned it down. Instead, he took out a C$40,000 loan against his mortgage and his insurance, and bought the troubled GM dealership he was working at, changing the company’s name to Jim Pattison Lease. The bank loan was repaid within one month, and the dealership went on to become one of the largest in western Canada.
Pattison went on to acquire more companies in rapid order. First came the purchase of local radio station CJOR. Two years later, in 1967, he purchased Neon Products, the signmaker that had created the dealership’s huge neon sign.
The entrepreneur began operating on a philosophy of ploughing most of what he earned back into the business, and he also believed strongly in diversification. As his success grew, and his acquisitions became larger, a personal style emerged that Financial Post writer Damsell described as “the creeping takeover.” Under this method, Pattison took his time learning about a prospective takeover target, and gradually began buying shares in the company, before taking it over outright.
As we all know, things continue to keep changing faster than ever … and that’s good for people like us … because with change comes opportunity—and that’s what we really like. We as a company are focusing harder than ever in meeting our customers’ ever-changing needs—and making sure that we are driving hard to lead the competitive market in every business we’re in.
Not all of Pattison’s investments were successful. In 1969, one of his holdings, a company called Neonex, unsuccessfully tried a takeover of Maple Leaf Mills Ltd. of Toronto. Pattison was almost bankrupted in the process. The Maple Leaf Mills takeover resulted in a series of lawsuits that took 13 years to settle. At the same time, Neonex incurred losses from a carpet company it had taken over. Neonex shares went from a high of C$45 to a low of 80 centers a share. Suddenly, Pattison was in financial trouble and his credibility had suffered considerable damage. When the entrepreneur rebuilt his fortune in the late 1970s, he took Neonex and another company, Great Pacific, private. Experts speculated that Pattison’s experience with publicly held corporations had scarred him for life. A few other unsuccessful forays included involvement with the World Hockey Association and bids for such sports teams as the Vancouver Canucks and the British Columbia Lions.
Nevetheless, Pattison persevered and continued to expand his company. In time, he acquired grocery store chains, fish canning plants, and aviation companies, and, by 1970, the foundation of the Pattison empire was in place. In one of his better-known deals of the time, the entrepreneur purchased the maker of Orange Crush soda and sold it within six months at a C$44 million profit. Pattison’s holdings in 1970 were generating over C$100 million in annual revenues, and the company employed over 2,000.
By 1979, Pattison had 44 profit centers, and the Jim Pattison Group was Canada’s 11th largest company. It was the only privately held firm among the top 500. In 1980, the company reported annual sales of C$500 million and employed a work force of some 6,000. During these boom years, before the recession of the early 1980s, according to Vancouver Sun writer Der Hoi-Yin, “Pattison had the incredible foresight to veer against the going takeover trend and instead liquidate the bottom 20 percent of his assets.” These assets, an estimated C$140 million in cash and liquid money market instruments, would later be used for new acquisitions after the recession ended.
In the early 1980s, a recession in Canada let to cutbacks and layoffs. Concerned over a myriad of challenges, including high interest rates, government deficits, high unemployment, low productivity, and the potential for an international banking col-lapse of a third world nation, Pattison cut back on expenditures and acquisitions. Still, during this time Pattison agreed to chair the world trade fair, Expo ’86, for the fee of C$1 a year. He somehow managed to look after his own interests and manage the Expo project as well.
In 1884, Pattison drew upon his cash reserves and began aggressively acquiring new holdings, perhaps the best know of which was Ripley International Ltd., operator of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museums. At an estimated cost of C$17 million, Pattison acquired 13 wholly owned museums in Canada, the United States, and Europe, real estate properties, royalties to a Believe It Or Not! board game that was then the number two seller in the United States, license arrangements to Believe it Or Not! novelties, and comic strips that were running in approximately 300 newspapers. Also during this time, Pattison added the Jim Pattison Yacht Leasing division to his business empire. It was the only leasing program for boats in Canada.
In the early 1990s, the entrepreneur overhauled and revamped many of his companies. By way of setting an example, Pattison pledged to cut his costs at the head office by 25 percent. Cuts included staff layoffs, cancelled publication subscriptions, elimination of travel and hotel expense accounts, and even efforts to reduce telephone bills. “We have to get our costs down if we’re going to continue to grow. We’re cutting loose the non-performers and the businesses we don’t think can make it in a borderless society,” Pattison was quoted as saying.
The 1990s brought about many new acquisitions and new markets. In 1990 the Jim Pattison Group acquired the Foodservice Packaging Group and the Flexible Packaging Group, as well as Coroplast and Montebellow Packaging. In 1991, the Jim Pattison Trade Group was established, as was a new Financial Services Division. By the mid-1990s, the Jim Pattison Group was generating annual sales of C$3.3 billion. In 1994, Pattison was involved in restructuring the debt of the Westar Group and became the majority shareholder, as well as acquiring Westshore Terminals, a British Columbia-based coal-export terminal facility. The following year, the Pattison Group acquired Buy-Low Foods, and in 1997, Pattison started Select Media Services. In 1999, he acquired Cooper’s Foods.
Throughout his career, Pattison continued to support a theory of streamlined management. In 1997, the corporate empire, with C$3.4 billion in sales and 17,000 employees, was run with fewer than ten executives. After buying control of the Westar Group, Pattison closed down the head office and reduced staff there to one person. The Globe & Mail reported, “When Mr. Pattison buys a company, its staff go into shock when they are presented with his management style, but workers who survive generally emerge as part of a healthier company.”
Surviving employees were often well rewarded for years of good service. The late Bill Sleeman first met Pattison back in 1961 when he worked for the GM dealership that Pattison man-aged. Sleeman later joined the Pattison empire and eventually retired in 1990 after 21 years of service. The North Shore News reported that Pattison gave him a red Rolls Royce convertible, saying, “We gave that to him as a goodbye present. If there was anything better, we would have done that.” In his role as vice-chairman of the Jim Pattison Group, Sleeman acquired more than 50 private companies for his employer. At the end of 1999, the Jim Pattison Group had 22,000 employees and sales of C$4.6 billion, and the company showed no signs of slowing down.
Jim Pattison Developments Ltd.; Canadian Fishing Co.; Mer-chant Media Ltd.; Ski Media Ltd.; Great Pacific Capital Corp.
- Jim Pattison acquires a Pontiac Buick dealership in Vancouver and starts Jim Pattison Lease.
- Pattison is awarded license to operate Vancouver AM radio station CJOR.
- Company acquires Neon Products of Vancouver.
- The Jim Pattison Real Estate Group is founded.
- Company acquires Beautiful British Columbia magazine.
- Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museums and licensed products are purchased.
- The Foodservice Packaging Group is purchased; sales reach $2 billion.
- A financial services division is started.
- Buy-Low Foods is brought into the company.
- Sales reach C$4.4 billion.
Jim Pattison Trade Group; Food Group; Sign Group; Out-Of-Home Media Group; Automotive Group; The News Group; Communications/Entertainment; Broadcast Group; Financial Services; Flexible Packaging Group; Food Service Packaging Group; Specialty Packaging Group; Export Service.
Principal Operating Units
Buy-Low Foods; Save-On Foods; Overwaitea Foods; Giant Foods; Associated Grocers; Shop N’ Save; Kanaway Seafoods; Ripley Entertainment; Guinness Attractions; Louis Tussaud’s Waxworks; Beautiful British Columbia; Genpak; Purity Pack-aging; Fibracan; Montebello Packaging; Coroplast; Westshore Terminals; Strout Plastics; Continental Extrusion; Progressive Packaging; CFJC-AM/CIFM-FM Radio; CFJC-TV; Jim Pattison Toyota; Jim Pattison Lease; Jim Pattison Chevrolet Oldsmobile; Gould Outdoor Advertising; Hook Outdoor Advertising; MetroBus; Seaboard Advertising; Neon Products; Claude Neon.
Empire Company Ltd.; George Weston Ltd.; Canada Safeway Ltd.; Quebecor Inc.
“The Billionaires,” Forbes Global, July 5, 1999.
Damsell, Keith, “Deep Pockets, Broad Vision,” Financial Post, February 2, 1993, p. 8.
Hoi-Yin, Der, “One Man’s Chips Another’s Comeback,” Vancouver Sun, December 15, 1984.
“Jim Pattison: Quintessential Entrepreneur,” Business In Vancouver: Business Leaders of the Century, 1998, pp. 98–99.
Kelly, Russell, Pattison: Portrait of a Capitalist Superstar, Vancouver: New Star Books, 1986.
Mackie, “Pattison Splurges on Monroe Memorabilia,” Vancouver Sun, November 2, 1999, p. A4.
“Pattison Group Freezes Wages,” Globe & Mail, March 17, 1982. Schreiner, John, “The Private Style of Jim Pattison,” Financial Post, May 22, 1997.