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B.C. billionaire Jim Pattison, left, and former B.C. premier Glen Clark in 2007.Handout

For Glen Clark, a former B.C. premier, NDP politician and union organizer, redemption came from an unexpected place.

A conflict-of-interest scandal had forced him to resign as premier in 1999, although he kept his seat in the B.C. legislature for another 21 months. In the spring of 2001, he opted not to seek re-election in his riding of Vancouver-Kingsway.

With his political career in tatters and the NDP nearly wiped out by the Liberals in the provincial election in May, 2001, Mr. Clark’s employment prospects appeared limited. At the time, he had criminal charges hanging over him for alleged breach of trust and accepting a benefit. He would later be found not guilty.

Dave Barrett, who served as B.C. premier from 1972 to 1975, phoned Jim Pattison, the billionaire owner of the Vancouver-based Jim Pattison Group, to recommend that he hire Mr. Clark.

Mr. Pattison went with his instincts. Instead of waiting for the outcome of the court case, he took Mr. Clark at his word. “Before I hired him, I asked him a lot of questions and he answered all the questions, and based on what he told me, I believed him,” Mr. Pattison told The Globe and Mail. “I hired him at the time because I thought that he would work out okay with us, and it turned out he did.”

In 2001, exactly 20 years ago as of Saturday, Mr. Clark joined Pattison Group’s sign division as a regional manager. The alliance between the two men has since grown into a flourishing business dynamic. Mr. Clark lacked corporate credentials when he joined the company, but he learned quickly. He became the conglomerate’s president in 2011 and then added the title of chief operating officer in 2017.

Mr. Clark and Mr. Pattison began as a corporate odd couple. Media coverage in the early years pointed out the stark contrasts between the two men. “Yeah, the billionaire and the socialist,” Mr. Clark, now 63 years old, said during an interview.

It would be oversimplifying to portray Mr. Clark solely as the trade unionist and Mr. Pattison as the capitalist. “They’re both kind of self-made out of East Vancouver,” said Bill Tieleman, a communications consultant and former BC NDP strategist who worked for Mr. Clark in 1996 in the premier’s office.

On closer examination, he added, the two men complement each other, and each has a strong work ethic. “There was never a question of them getting along,” Mr. Tieleman said.

This spring, Mr. Clark and Mr. Pattison made a visit together to one of Pattison Group’s newest holdings: a Quality Foods grocery store in Parksville on Vancouver Island.

The trip, for the purpose of taking a close-up look at this new part of Mr. Pattison’s sprawling business empire, underscored the bond between the two men.

The conglomerate’s eclectic assets today include supermarket chains under the Quality Foods and Save-On-Foods banners, car dealerships, billboard advertising, Guinness World Records, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, Great Wolf Lodge, Canadian Fishing Co., and a broadcasting unit with more than 45 radio stations.

Normally, Mr. Pattison and Mr. Clark would have cut a ribbon to open the Quality Foods store and encouraged local fanfare. But with COVID-19 restrictions still in effect, they wanted to avoid drawing a big crowd of shoppers. Instead, they took a corporate jet to Vancouver Island and arranged to be driven to Parksville two days before the grand opening. In late March, the store manager held a scaled-back ceremony with the mayor of Parksville, after Mr. Pattison and Mr. Clark had already left.

Whenever possible behind the scenes, Mr. Pattison and Mr. Clark strive to maintain the tradition of pressing the flesh with managers and employees at the local level. It’s a practice they’ve kept up during the pandemic, despite the necessity of masks and physical distancing.

“You can’t really find out what’s going on, sitting at a desk in Vancouver,” Mr. Clark said. “You can read the statistics and all the financial statements, but you really don’t get a feel for the company until you go talk to people. That may well be old-fashioned, but that’s certainly our core principle.”

On their trips together, Mr. Clark and Mr. Pattison take time to check out not only wholly owned assets but also companies in which Mr. Pattison has significant equity stakes. Among his holdings are 51 per cent of lumber producer Canfor Corp. and 38 per cent of coal-export operator Westshore Terminals Investment Corp.

Pattison Group is a holding company that promotes decentralization, placing responsibility on the leader of each operation to run a tight ship. “We really believe that the heart of the company is the operations,” Mr. Clark said. “We want to talk to the operators, we want to visit the people. We really try hard to visit as many as we can every year. That’s why I’m on the road a lot.”

Mr. Clark has toured more than 200 grocery stores that belong to Pattison Group. “I’ve been to every one of them,” he said. “That’s the most fun part of the job.”

He oversees several of the company’s divisions, including Ripley’s, whose oddity-filled museums have been hurt by pandemic-related shutdowns. Pattison’s grocery chains and car dealerships, meanwhile, have prospered during the pandemic.

Mr. Clark thrived on toiling through long days in his political life. He has learned that, in the corporate world, the pace can be just as gruelling, especially when reporting directly to the boss. Mr. Pattison, who turned 92 last October, still works seven days a week as the owner, chairman and chief executive officer of Pattison Group.

Mr. Pattison’s roots are humble. He was born in Saskatchewan. His parents moved to Vancouver’s working-class east side when he was five years old.

In pursuing his entrepreneurial dreams, Mr. Pattison ended up three courses short of earning a commerce degree from the University of British Columbia. In the summer of 1948, at the age of 19, during a break from studies at UBC, he landed a job that required wearing rubber coveralls while washing used cars with a hose.

At Fred Richmond Motors in Vancouver, he seized an opportunity when the manager allowed him to also sell used cars on the lot, as long as the lone salesman wasn’t on duty. “The first week that I was washing cars, I sold three,” Mr. Pattison said.

He started a single Pontiac and Buick dealership in Vancouver in 1961. Since then, Pattison Group has grown by leaps and bounds. Last year, it had $12.7-billion in revenue, with 51,000 employees across 565 locations worldwide.

Mr. Pattison’s confidence in his staff has been paid back in loyalty. His longest-serving employee is Maureen Chant, who has been his administrative assistant since 1963.

Over the decades, Mr. Pattison has become a notable philanthropist in Canada. In 2017, he donated $75-million to the St. Paul’s Hospital Foundation in Vancouver and $50-million to help build a new children’s hospital in Saskatoon.

“Jimmy Pattison believes in sharing the wealth. He just wants to do it on his own terms,” Mr. Tieleman said. “And he has maintained pretty good relations with organized labour, not that there haven’t been differences in bargaining and issues.”

Mr. Clark was born in Nanaimo on Vancouver Island and raised on Vancouver’s east side. He holds a bachelor of arts degree from Simon Fraser University and graduated with a master’s degree in community and regional planning from UBC.

A former union organizer, he parlayed his backing from the labour movement into winning a seat in the B.C. legislature at the age of 28 in 1986. As B.C. finance minister in the early 1990s, he got to know the buzz in the businesses community.

“He would go to meetings with businesspeople and they would be prepared to be anywhere from skeptical to downright negative,” Mr. Tieleman recalled. “But I can certainly remember meetings where business leaders were just stunned how much he knew about their business. He’s always been a super quick study.”

In the summer of 2002, nearly 14 months after Mr. Clark joined Pattison Group, a B.C. Supreme Court judge cleared him of all criminal charges. He remains a supporter of the BC NDP and has never renounced his social democratic ideals.

He said he admires his boss’s tenacity and is grateful for the opportunity Mr. Pattison gave him to transition into a second career after the rough and tumble of politics. “No one offered me a job, because I obviously had to clear my name. Then Jimmy phoned and invited me down and it was fantastic that he offered me a job,” he recalls. “I had a mortgage to pay and I didn’t have much prospects.”

Despite the mutual admiration, Mr. Pattison cautioned against speculating on succession planning, dismissing the notion that any specific person is in line to take over as CEO. Industry insiders say various scenarios are possible, with several candidates capable of leading Pattison Group when the time comes to pass the torch.

The car salesman turned billionaire emphasized that, as a private company, Pattison Group won’t be telegraphing what exactly happens next. He did say he has no regrets about his decision two decades ago to place his trust in Mr. Clark.

“Well, it’s worked out certainly from our company’s point of view. It’s worked out fine,” Mr. Pattison said. “I just can’t say anything negative about Glen. He’s a hard worker and people like him. If I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t do anything different.”

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