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Corporate Strategy

Setting his own (corporate world) record Add to ...

The world's largest smoothie (1,000 litres, blueberry). Biggest table tennis tournament (1,197 players). Most people exercising to a fitness video (598 people, 5½ minutes).

And: Most revenue from being the go-to arbiter of world records (an estimated $70-million a year, and counting).

The business of record-breaking has never been better.

For decades, the owners of London-based Guinness World Records earned a reliable, if dull, cash flow from the sale of 3.5 million annual compendiums each year.

Then Vancouver billionaire Jim Pattison came knocking. In early 2008, he paid a reported $120-million for the company, adding it to his motley collection of assets in Jim Pattison Group, a $7.1-billion company that owns everything from forestry and used car dealerships to billboards and Ripley's Believe it or Not! museums.

The first thing Mr. Pattison did was unleash the Guinness executives in London to pursue growth. Mr. Pattison operates his sprawling, Vancouver-based conglomerate in the same way, with each of its many arms effectively being run independently.

Guinness management took up the challenge and turned to the first item on their to-do list: Expanding the firm's record-adjudication business. While the company processes standard records for free, for roughly $11,000 it also works with corporate record seekers, dispatching one of 18 adjudicators to officially declare a new record on the spot. Guinness contends it's a bargain, estimating the value of publicity generated by a world record at $330,000.

The service has been embraced by customers around the world, from government departments in China to religious groups in India, as well as companies in North America that are seeking the marketing and public relations edge that the Guinness spotlight can bring.

And it's helped propel Guinness World Records' once-stagnant revenue ahead by 15 per cent in the past two years, according to the company. (The last publicly reported annual company revenue, in 2004 and 2005, was roughly $60-million.)

Now employing 70 people, up from 45 before Mr. Pattison's arrival, with new offices in New York and Tokyo, the firm expects to oversee 385 record attempts this year, almost double the 200 adjudicated in 2008.

In North America, companies and industry groups hungry for attention are helping drive that growth, including the Dairy Farmers of Canada, which was seeking publicity for its new logo and slogan, "100% Canadian Milk." Working with their Toronto-based public relations firm, Trillium Corporate Communications Inc., an idea emerged: the World's Largest Smoothie, a record then held by a Booster Juice outlet in Kitchener, Ont.

Steve Skidd, a principal and co-founder of Trillium, says a corporate world record attempt needs an imaginative premise, and "is not for everybody. [The idea]needs to be very simple, and tangible, directly related to the business, and something the public can share in."

Trillium - whose co-founder Kevin Lennon set his own record with friends as a teenager in 1970, for continuously bouncing a basketball - had used Guinness World Records to market other clients, such as FedEx Corp., and believed it would work for Dairy Farmers. So on a hot July day in Toronto this year, the group whipped up a 1,000-litre smoothie (550 litres of milk, 150 litres of yogurt, 35 litres of honey and 300 kilograms of blueberries), smashing the previous record of 740 litres.

Staged at Queens Quay, with two Guinness adjudicators on hand to present the certificate of record, the event drew a wave of media attention and produced 260 media stories, in Canada and abroad.

"We knew it would have an impact," said Solange Heiss, assistant marketing director at the Dairy Farmers. "The visibility we received was instant."

Instant, maybe, but not always positive. On a hot June day in 2005, Snapple's attempt to set a record for the "World's Largest Popsicle" turned into a public relations meltdown. Their 7.6-metre-tall, 17.5-ton frozen juice treat unexpectedly thawed, flooding part of 17th Street in downtown Manhattan with kiwi-strawberry slush that reportedly sent pedestrians scurrying for higher ground and caused several cyclists to wipe out. It was widely mocked in the media, sparking the New York Post headline: Snapple Slips Up in Ice-Pop Flop.

While Snapple's failed effort obviously didn't make it into the records book, some successful corporate attempts have been almost as bizarre: The Largest Cardboard Box, for instance, which was constructed in Times Square in 2009 to promote Ion Television. Or the Largest Toast Mosaic, assembled (after six hours of toasting nearly 10,000 slices of bread) to promote global smart phone designer HTC in Warrington, U.K., last month.

No idea is too outlandish for Guinness to consider.

"We take strange detail very seriously," said Alistair Richards, managing director of Guinness World Records. "People love record breaking, all around the world, and we love getting out into the field and adjudicating people having a go at Guinness world records. Whether they succeed or fail, they love it. It gives a purpose for the challenge and they know the prestige."

Guinness World Records began in the mid-1950s as the brainchild of Sir Hugh Beaver, managing director of the Guinness brewery in Ireland, who thought it would be a popular way to settle pub bets. The first edition, in 1955, became a No. 1 bestseller in Britain.

Mr. Richards arrived at the company eight years ago, after stints at Colgate and Hasbro. Mr. Pattison has been a boss unlike any other he's had, Mr. Richards said. "He gives a degree of autonomy that none of the others did."

Under Mr. Pattison's leadership, the company's international push is well under way. By expanding its website from English-only to a dozen-plus languages, the number of claims submitted each year has jumped 50 per cent to 45,000 from 30,000. The company aims to have offices in 10 countries around the world in the next decade. "We're a global arbiter, but it's all about creating local country heroes," Mr. Richards said.

The acquisition of Guinness World Records is vintage Jim Pattison. His firm was founded in 1961 when the star car salesman started his own Pontiac Buick dealership in Vancouver. More than 400 acquisitions later, the privately held company's annual sales are $7.1-billion, up 16 per cent from $6.1-billion five years ago. It employs 33,000 people at 449 locations around the world and has made Mr. Pattison the fourth-richest person in Canada, worth $5-billion.

"When you're able to say it is in the Guinness book, people trust it like they used to trust the Encyclopedia Britannica," Jim Pattison Jr., who presides over Ripley's, said at the time. "So it has a real authority to it and people all over the world try to get into the book."

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