Through the thick and thin of trade wars, B.C. billionaire Jim Pattison has learned to sleep soundly next to the twitchy U.S. elephant.
Mr. Pattison, 88, has seen his share of softwood-lumber battles between Canada and the United States, dating back to the initial skirmish in the early 1980s.
The latest clash marks Round 5 in the cross-border fight, also known in the forestry industry as Lumber V – borrowing from the Roman numeral style for the Super Bowl. "I am disappointed that we have to go through this, but you know, it's just part of business," the chairman and chief executive officer of Jim Pattison Group told The Globe and Mail.
Jim Pattison Group boasts diversified assets that include car dealerships, billboard advertising, supermarkets and radio stations. Other holdings in his privately owned conglomerate are quirky – Guinness World Records and Ripley's Believe It or Not.
Through private companies that he owns, he also has stakes in sectors such as forestry, notably his 47.4-per-cent interest in lumber producer Canfor Corp.
Mr. Pattison is maintaining his calm demeanour as the Trump administration not only slaps duties on Canadian softwood shipments into the United States but also pushes to renegotiate the North American free-trade agreement.
"I think they will certainly make some changes," he said, adding that after some give-and-take, "we will have to live with it and make the best of it, whatever it is."
He said trade tensions in general between the two neighbouring countries are inevitable – he backs NAFTA but is realistic about U.S. political pressures.
"I supported what we have. But the Americans are going to change the rules and they're a very important customer of ours and an important friend, so we'll have to adjust to it," Mr. Pattison said. "We'll have to work it out because we've been good friends for a long time. We'll just have to work it out, that's all."
His right-hand man is Glen Clark, who served as British Columbia's NDP premier from 1996 to 1999. The billionaire took a chance with his surprise hiring of Mr. Clark in 2001, two years after the former premier's political career ended.
Since 2011, Mr. Clark has been president of the conglomerate, which employs 42,000 people. He also serves as a director at Canfor and Westshore Terminals Investment Corp.
Mr. Pattison has gradually delegated responsibilities over his business empire to Mr. Clark and other Jim Pattison Group executives such as Dave Cobb, who has been managing director of corporate development since 2011.
On the philanthropic side, Mr. Pattison made headlines in March in Vancouver when he donated $75-million to the St. Paul's hospital foundation.
On the corporate side, Jim Pattison Group executives prefer to avoid the public spotlight. "As a private company, we don't seek publicity," Mr. Clark said in an e-mail.
Mr. Pattison recently held a 27.3-per-cent stake in Westshore, the operator of a coal-shipping facility located south of Vancouver. Westshore has become ensnarled in trade tensions, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau saying that Ottawa is considering a request from British Columbia to ban exports of U.S. and Canadian thermal coal from B.C. ports.
Mr. Pattison refuses to get all tied up in knots about disruptive "events." He isn't losing sleep over the imposition of U.S. tariffs averaging almost 20 per cent on Canadian lumber exports south of the border. "I personally think that free trade is better than a lot of things. On the other hand, there are always special circumstances and special occasions – events that you need to do things about," Mr. Pattison said. "I basically prefer the free-trade side of things."
The octogenarian is the largest shareholder in Vancouver-based Canfor, one of five lumber firms in Canada that got hit with company-specific duty rates by the Trump administration. Canfor is paying a preliminary countervailing duty rate of 20.26 per cent – slightly higher than the tariff of 19.88 per cent levied against the bulk of Canadian lumber exporters.
Mr. Pattison said Don Kayne, Canfor's president and CEO since 2011, is well-versed in the nuances of the softwood-lumber dispute. "I think the best person to ask is the president of Canfor. He's better qualified than I am because he's been living this for the last little while," Mr. Pattison said.
The duties, announced on April 24, took effect four days later as the United States retaliated for Canada's alleged lumber subsidies. "These duties are punitive and completely unwarranted. They are not based on fact, but are the result of protectionist efforts by the influential U.S. Lumber Coalition," Mr. Kayne said during Canfor's annual meeting on April 26 in Vancouver.
Mr. Pattison served on Canfor's board from 2003 until last month, when he stepped down as a director.
Canfor chairman Michael Korenberg described Mr. Pattison as a "fantastic director" at Canfor. "The businesses that are part of the Jim Pattison Group have become such an overwhelming priority that Jimmy is stepping back" from Canfor's board, Mr. Korenberg said. "I just want to publicly thank you for the immense contributions that you've made."
Mr. Kayne also thanked Mr. Pattison for providing sage advice over the years. "Jimmy's involvement in Canfor has been at a time of significant transformation for our company," Mr. Kayne said. "His leadership and support have been instrumental to the company and to me personally."
Seated at the back of the room, Mr. Pattison smiled. Minutes later, he wore his leather jacket over his pin-striped suit and ducked out early for his next appointment.
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