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Illustration of Jim Pattison Group chief executive officer Jimmy Pattison. (ANTHONY JENKINS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Illustration of Jim Pattison Group chief executive officer Jimmy Pattison. (ANTHONY JENKINS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)


Lunch with the irreplaceable Canadian billionaire Jimmy Pattison Add to ...

Mr. Pattison has no technology companies in his stable, although he insists that each of his businesses uses advanced technology in pursuit of higher returns. The Jim Pattison Group remains a collection of solid, Old Economy businesses with an owner in the ninth decade of his life. And so the question of succession is always the elephant in the room, and Mr. Pattison acknowledges its presence: “I’m 84, and 84 is not like 24.”

So is Mr. Clark the succession solution? “He’s probably going to outlive me anyway,” Mr. Clark quips, while Mr. Pattison issues his standard reply on such matters: “We don’t discuss that.”

That doesn’t stop speculation among Pattison-watchers that Mr. Clark may be veering toward a showdown with another of the group’s managing directors, Dave Cobb, who joined the team about a year ago, having briefly run BC Hydro, and before that, served as deputy CEO for the Vancouver Winter Games and in a senior role for the Vancouver Canucks hockey team.

But Mr. Cobb, who is charged with corporate development duties, is still early in his apprenticeship. “He has been here less than a year, and this is a complex organization and it takes time,” Mr. Pattison says. “Glen has gone through all these divisions and learned a lot about the business.”

Indeed, Mr. Clark started out with responsibility for electrical signs, added magazines, then car leasing and the fishing business. Then Mr. Pattison gave him the Ripley’s Believe It or Not and the Guinness World Records entertainment groups, and recently the food retail business. Mr. Clark is thus taking more and more responsiblity for the operating businesses and, in the Pattison Group, that is valued. “We are not financial people – we are operators,” Mr. Pattison says.

But who becomes CEO is probably less important than who will own the company when Mr. Pattison passes from the scene. Mr. Pattison refuses to say whether he has set up an estate freeze to transfer ultimate ownership to his family.

He is adamant that it is not a family company, and his son and two daughters will not inherit any cozy entitlement. Yet Mr. Pattison is proud that son Jim Jr,. who heads the Ripleys operation out of Orlando, got the job not through nepotism, but because he was recommended by the retiring head of the unit. Jim Jr., now 60, reports to Mr. Clark.

Not that succession is an immediate issue. Mr. Pattison looks good, and looks after himself better than ever. For lunch, he dines on his executive chef’s repast of chicken wrapped in prosciutto and sage, accompanied with rice. There is a hearty vegetable soup for a starter and fresh berries for dessert, and he rejects coffee for plain water.

When originally approached about a lunch interview, Mr. Pattison said he doesn’t go out for lunch – not that he needs to, with such a sumptuous table prepared in the office. He is office-bound, he says, because of the demands of running a global company which must bridge time zones – with Asia on one side of the day and Europe on the other. When he isn’t in the office, Mr. Pattison is in his corporate jet, visting his far-flung units. “If you live in Vancouver, most of the action is in the eastern end of North America,” Mr. Clark observes. “It’s the price you pay for living here.”

Another price is the unconventional B.C. politics that swings wildly between two brands of populism – red-meat conservatism and tree-hugging social democracy. Mr. Pattison navigates cheerfully down the middle, a conservative with a weakness for socialist firebrands. The halls outside the boardroom are lined with photos that reflect his catholic tastes in politician friends – hell-raising former New Democractic Party premier Dave Barrett, conservative icon Margaret Thatcher, both George Bushes – and everywhere you look, this small, smiling billionaire.

Current polls suggest there will be a new NDP government in May, supplanting the star-crossed Liberals. Asked whether he worries about the future, Mr. Pattison insists: “Nobody can screw up British Columbia.”

Mr. Pattison has loyally stuck to Vancouver, when he might have paid less tax and contended with fewer regulations by moving 230 kilometres south to Seattle. He once considered the move because of the broader U.S. opportunities, but Mr. Pattison was an only child and, at the time, his elderly mother was living in Vancouver. It was easier to hop on his jet than deal with moving away from home.

Decades later, the Pattison Group remains the heart and soul of the B.C. private sector, employing about 16,000 people in the province – and a total of 22,000 in Canada. But can a new recruit feel confident about still having a job in, say, 25 years, given the age of the owner and the unknown plans for continuity?

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