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Jimmy has the last laugh Add to ...

"We have a saying," Jimmy Pattison explains. "We never start late but sometimes we start early."

The 75-year-old tabbed recently by Forbes as the world's 94th-wealthiest man isn't indulging in a rare instance of abstract philosophizing. Ever since his days as a car salesman, Pattison has been at war with the tardy. Hard reality became cherished myth after his 1987 autobiography, Jimmy, recounted the day a late-arriving employee fired up a chain saw and let himself in a locked meeting-room door to the astonishment of all but the boss himself, who'd staged the whole thing as a lesson.

Today, no power tools are needed. It's Feb. 10 and over the next two weeks, senior executives from across the Jim Pattison Group will be in Vancouver for quarterly meetings. They come from almost two dozen companies, which are organized in eight divisions (see "It's Jimmy's World," opposite). Pattison's deal with division managers is typically straightforward. He will virtually ignore their existence for 361 days of the year. In return, they will show up every three months with detailed presentations that pinpoint the performance of every aspect of their operations. Ideally the presentations will be slick and entertaining, perhaps sprinkled with video clips and advanced-user PowerPoint features. Less optionally, they will portray excellent results.

There will be a lot of excellent results this time around. Pattison's privately owned company reveals only two numbers: total assets and total revenue. In 2003, the latter showed no increase from 2002's $5.5 billion, but Pattison flatly calls it "the best year ever." Only a 21% rise in the value of the Canadian dollar prevented him from announcing the near double-digit percentage annual growth he's been pulling off regularly for more than 40 years. Of course, the same currency phenomenon worked in reverse in the Forbes ranking, which is expressed in American dollars. In that calculation, Pattison jumped from $2.2 billion to $4.6 billion, leapfrogging American paupers like Charles Schwab in the process. Is the Forbes figure accurate? Pattison is as patient as he can be. "We never comment on those numbers," he says. "Why would we give our competitors an advantage?"

This morning's presentation is by the auto group. It's an 8 o'clock meeting, so the executives in charge of Pattison's dealerships, lease operations and auto malls know to start trickling in at 6:15, a half-hour behind Pattison and his secretary of 41 years, Maureen Chant. As expected, the meeting begins at 7.

Each quarterly has a distinct function. In May, head office looks at an updated forecast of what the year in progress will bring. August affords some time for blue-skying and includes a social aspect. November is when budgets are finalized for the year to come. And February's round, the only one convened at head office rather than on the divisions' home turfs, concentrates on the year just passed. Always the reports proceed in a prescribed manner, with special attention paid to precise metrics that allow the corporate office to make easy comparisons across the division and over time. When the meetings have wrapped up, Pattison will voluntarily put his own hide on the line before a gathering of his advisory board of directors--corporate chieftains from across the continent (such as Fairmont Hotels CEO Bill Fatt and Edward Meyer, CEO of Grey Advertising in New York) whose role is to provide the chairman, managing director and chief executive himself with a little guidance.

Another one of Pattison's sayings is that it's always fun if you're making money, and a veteran of many quarterlies attests that the atmosphere can be very light-hearted when times are good. And excruciatingly intense when they are not. Today it's the former. The auto group's sales are up handily, quality indexes remain high, market share has been gained, and the most magic number of all, return on invested capital, resides at a lofty height. Accordingly, the executives have spiced up their presentations with video clips of skiers: They plunge down cliff over cliff, either gracefully or not, depending on the situation back at the lot. When the division guys have had their fun, and their head office equivalents have offered congratulations and brief comments, it is Pattison's turn. But first he grants a 15-minute break. Nine minutes later he is back at the table, wondering where everyone is.

Pattison's half-hour address has two rationales. The first is to draw attention to the big picture--things like the eclipse of the Big Three and the potential of China--that managers had better be thinking about if they aren't already. The second is to underline his belief in the importance of people. During the presentations, he asked virtually every presenter if there were any problems "on the people side." Now he inquires about several employees who have caught his eye or who have been weathering personal difficulties. He concludes his benediction with a query: "Have we at corporate office provided the support you need to do your job?"

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