In 1961, Jim Pattison opened a two-car showroom with three gasoline pumps, before parlaying the Pontiac-Buick dealership in Vancouver into a global conglomerate.
Today, the 91-year-old B.C. billionaire is too busy working to indulge in nostalgia. He is looking to the future, trying to understand the impact of climate change on the numerous sectors in which his company operates.
That impact is unlikely to be small. For businesses to survive and thrive, they must adapt to shifts in the marketplace, such as drivers who are increasingly adjusting their buying behaviour because of concerns about global warming, he said in an interview.
“What is going to be best for the environment? Look at the young people – the 16-year-old girl from Sweden,” Mr. Pattison said, referring to climate activist Greta Thunberg, who spoke at a climate action rally in Downtown Vancouver on Friday.
While emphasizing the impact of climate change, Mr. Pattison said he needs to take a pragmatic view as the chairman and chief executive officer of Jim Pattison Group. His privately held conglomerate employs more than 46,000 people and surpassed $10.6-billion in revenue last year.
He cites the example of the company’s 25 auto dealerships in British Columbia, Alberta and Manitoba. The dealerships sell mostly autos with internal gas-combustion engines, and also offer some hybrids and electric vehicles. “We can’t take our car business and shut it down tomorrow, but over time, we will have to convert over to electric cars,” Mr. Pattison said in an interview on the 18th floor of the conglomerate’s head office in Downtown Vancouver.
He expects zero-emission cars to eventually become the norm, despite plug-in electric vehicles having less than 2 per cent of the Canadian market for new autos today. “In the next 10 to 15 years, there are going to be huge changes in the car business.”
Climate change has repercussions over the long term for his diverse holdings, whether it’s the number of gasoline-powered cars sold at his dealerships or where to find seafood for canning or what type of coal is shipped from an export terminal.
The Saskatchewan-born business magnate and philanthropist said seafood vessels are catching fewer fish near British Columbia. Pattison Group’s holdings include Canadian Fishing Co., which has 750 vessels in its fleet, and seafood marketing unit Ocean Brands.
“We’ve got serious concerns with global warming in general,” added Ian Ricketts, president of Ocean Brands, whose Gold Seal canned-seafood label is celebrating its 100th anniversary.
“What we’re seeing in the ocean are growing numbers of warm spots on the West Coast that we call the blob, and it extends from Mexico all the way up to Alaska,” he said. “The mortality rates for fish in these warm areas are higher.”
Warm spots in the Pacific Ocean have forced fishing vessels to chart their course to find places where the seafood haul would be more abundant, while avoiding overfishing.
“We’re seeing reduced numbers of wild salmon returning to the Fraser River in B.C., but in Bristol Bay in the northern part of Alaska, you’re seeing record runs of sockeye,” Mr. Ricketts said.
Mr. Pattison owns 34 per cent of Westshore Terminals Investment Corp. through holding companies. Westshore, which operates an export facility south of Vancouver, ships metallurgical coal that’s used to make steel and also thermal coal for firing power plants.
Environmentalists are particularly concerned about greenhouse-gas emissions from electricity plants fired by thermal coal. In the second quarter, 30 per cent of Westshore’s coal tonnage was thermal coal, down from 44 per cent in the same period of 2018. Mr. Pattison envisages a trend of declining exports of thermal coal to generation plants in Asia in the years ahead, as some of those facilities switch to natural gas.
Through Great Pacific Capital Corp., he also owns 51 per cent of lumber-producer Canfor Corp. He launched a bid last August to take full control in order to take the company private.
“Wood is environmentally friendly,” he said, noting that Canfor plants tens of millions of tree seedlings annually to regenerate forests, helping to absorb carbon dioxide.
Mr. Pattison has been a fan of free-enterprise politicians over the decades. At the conglomerate’s Vancouver headquarters, the pictorial gallery on the wall includes a photo of him posing with Ronald Reagan and another with Margaret Thatcher.
But the billionaire eschews labels. The wall also has a photo of Mr. Pattison posing with Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki. “We’ve had him come speak to our management. We know him well,” Mr. Pattison said.
To the surprise of the business world in 2001, he hired former B.C. NDP premier Glen Clark, a self-described socialist. Mr. Clark has been the conglomerate’s president since 2011, and also serves as a director at Westshore and Canfor.
As Mr. Pattison walked along a hallway at the company’s head office, he waved at Nick Desmarais, a Pattison Group executive who was busy on a conference call. “That fellow who’s on the phone – his No. 1 job at our meetings is to bring up the topic of the environment,” Mr. Pattison said. "Our management and employees can all do something to help the environment.”
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