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Jim Pattison looks out at Coal Harbour from the library at his office in Vancouver, on Sept. 25, 2018. He spoke over the phone in an interview with The Globe and Mail from his spacious office in Shaw Tower.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

B.C. billionaire Jim Pattison expects his conglomerate’s path to recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic will be tougher than any economic adversity he’s faced over the decades.

The 91-year-old business magnate has become accustomed to an upward trajectory for his holdings ever since he opened a two-car showroom in Vancouver in 1961.

As part of the adjustments during the COVID-19 crisis, Mr. Pattison has invested further in the forestry sector and made changes at grocery stores to help his conglomerate weather the pandemic.

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Having seen his share of economic turmoil during his career, he is carefully scanning for business opportunities. “There are a lot of variables out there and we’ve never been through this before. In my opinion, our recovery is going to take a little bit longer than what we’ve been through with downturns before,” said the chief executive of Jim Pattison Group.

He spoke over the phone in an interview with The Globe and Mail from his spacious office in Shaw Tower, located in what has become a largely deserted downtown Vancouver.

While Pattison Group has been holding board meetings through conference calls, Mr. Pattison continues to drive to work in a 2020 Ram pickup truck supplied by one of his auto dealerships.

Mr. Pattison and the private conglomerate’s executives still conduct their weekly meetings at Pattison Group’s head office, but the seating arrangements for such gatherings have been changed to adhere to physical distancing.

“There are employees who work from home, but most of the executives are in. They have their own office,” he said. “Everyone stays the proper distance away in the office.”

Mr. Pattison said the pandemic has hit a wide range of the conglomerate’s business units, although he is optimistic about the future.

The latest annual report will be published this month, despite disruptions to what would otherwise be a routine printing run amid the COVID-19 crisis. “It’s going to get printed in the next 10 days,” he said.

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Last year, Pattison Group had $10.9-billion in sales, up 2.8 per cent from 2018. The number of employees rose by 2,000 to 48,000 worldwide last year. The conglomerate boasted 560 locations last year, compared with 541 in 2018.

Mr. Pattison said that with the uncertainty during the COVID-19 crisis, it is hard to predict what happens next to revenue across a wide range of business units. “There’s no point in guessing, and I won’t do that,” he said. “But in the long run, we’ll come out fine.”

Pattison Group’s holdings are diverse, including: car dealerships; billboard advertising; Guinness World Records; Ripley’s Believe It or Not; Great Wolf Lodge; packaging manufacturing; a broadcasting unit with more than 45 radio stations; and the Save-On-Foods supermarket chain and other grocery stores.

Mr. Pattison also holds large stakes in lumber producers Canfor Corp. and West Fraser Timber Co. Ltd., as well as coal-exporting facility Westshore Terminals Investment Corp.

Last month, he raised his stake in West Fraser to 13.8 per cent from 11.9 per cent. “West Fraser is a good company with good management. We’ve been invested in that company for 19 years,” Mr. Pattison said.

Asked about his motivation to acquire more West Fraser stock in March, he noted that the forestry company’s share price surpassed $90 in the spring of 2018. “I can’t tell you more than the facts,” said Mr. Pattison, who acquired more than one million of his West Fraser shares last month for less than $33 a share.

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He still likes to visit local Save-On-Foods outlets, one of the businesses that falls under essential services. “We’ve owned that since 1968, so that’s over 50 years,” he said. “I go into the stores on a regular basis. I go buy my own food there once in a while."

Last month, Save-On-Foods suspended bottle returns out of health concerns about the spread of the novel coronavirus and also reduced its operating hours. The chain was among the retailers that began selling boxes of cookies last month on behalf of the Girl Guides of Canada, whose door-to-door fundraising campaign got cancelled amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Over the decades, Mr. Pattison has made large donations, including $75-million to the St. Paul’s Hospital Foundation in 2017 in Vancouver. Given the health crisis, he is keeping his conglomerate’s financial status in perspective.

While he isn’t sure how the rest of 2020 will play out, Pattison Group’s revenue last year was nearly double what it was in 2004. “We have no complaints," he said.

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