Jim Pattison is 81, but he hasn't stopped building companies.
In age when conglomerates are considered passé, he personally oversees a sprawling empire of car dealerships, pulp mills, billboards, supermarkets, amusement parks and other interests too numerous to list. His net worth is estimated by Forbes magazine at $4-billion U.S., but because it is privately owned, perhaps no one really knows the full value but him.
Forbes puts Mr. Pattison at No. 212 in its rankings of the world's billionaires – not bad for a Saskatchewan-born kid who, growing up in Vancouver, managed to get into the used car business.
"When I came out of high school, my objective in life was to get a job selling used cars, but after trying for two weeks, nobody would hire me. So finally I met this guy at Fred Richmond Used Cars, who had one car salesman and eight used cars on the lot. He said, 'Lookit, I don't need a car salesman but I do need a car washer. I'll give you that job and you can sell cars when our one salesman is out for dinner.'
"So they gave me this rubber outfit to wear while washing cars. And in the first week, while the salesman was out at dinner, I sold three cars as the lot man with my rubber outfit on. The owner came and asked if I'd like to work full-time selling cars. That was my first huge unexpected deal."
"I later worked 10 years for a General Motors dealer and decided I'd like to strike out on my own some day, somewhere. But first I had to quit my job because, according to GM policy, it would not give me a dealership as long as I was working for a GM dealer. So I went out selling savings and loan certificates, before finally applying for a small dealership that was in difficulty. The Royal Bank of Canada lent me $40,000 – I didn't have five cents in cash at the time – and GM gave me a three-pump gas station with a two-car showroom. That was May 8, 1961.
"After I got in the car business, I started leasing cars and trucks and, after three years, I bought a small leasing company. Then came my first move beyond cars – there was a Vancouver radio station that had its AM licence cancelled because of programming issues. I put a group together to buy it, and over time I bought the other five partners out. So I had a car dealership, a leasing company and a radio station. We were starting on our way."
THE CONGLOMERATE DECISION
"I made the decision in 1967 to build a conglomerate [of different businesses] A car dealer I knew from Toronto called me up to see how I was doing and he said I should join YPO. I said 'What's YPO?' and he explained it was the Young Presidents' Organization. So I joined, went to some meetings, and I met a bunch of people. I got exposed to American members who were thinking about conglomerates. In the sixties conglomerates were all the rage. I figured this was a good idea – to diversify your business – so that's what I did.
"Today, public companies don't like the idea of conglomerates. People want to buy something in which they know where they are putting their money – into the food business or the oil and gas business. They don't want to put their money into a hodge-podge as a general rule. But we're not in a public company business. We run this as a private company.
"We've had lots of ups and downs and nothing has gone straight up. The Royal Bank gave me my start in business, but they got nervous with what I was doing, and Toronto-Dominion came in and really built our company. They stepped up when everything was leveraged to the teeth. It was a private company and these TD guys supported me till I got to the place where we had a critical mass."
BIG BUSINESS? HARDLY
"I still don't consider us to be a big business. Our sales last year were $7.1 billion Canadian, and we have 33,000 employees but in the scheme of things that is not a big business. We're still trying to grow. I started with one car dealer and now we have 16; when I bought our grocery store chain, Overwaitea, we had 28 stores and today we have 160 or 170. I had one car in my first leasing business and today we have 14,000-15,000 leased cars. Over time we tend to grow what we have, and we like what we've got. There is no mistake that I haven't made in building this business, and we continue to do it. We're pushing hard with our next growth objectives.
"When you live in Vancouver, you realize most of the population is in eastern North America. Also. more and more of our business is in the U.S. and now we've bought Guinness World Records in London. So at 81, I travel a lot still; last year I travelled more than 200,000 miles on business. After all, that's what we have to do."
This story originally appeared in the June, 2010 issue of Your Business magazine.