The Bottom Line

How Jimmy stays afloat

Even on an early Sunday morning boat cruise, Pattison is dressed for a deal

Deirdre McMurdy December 8 1997
The Bottom Line

How Jimmy stays afloat

Even on an early Sunday morning boat cruise, Pattison is dressed for a deal

Deirdre McMurdy December 8 1997

How Jimmy stays afloat

The Bottom Line

Even on an early Sunday morning boat cruise, Pattison is dressed for a deal

Deirdre McMurdy

By yachting standards, the Barbary Coast Marina in Vancouver is not posh. There is no palatial clubhouse. The wooden docks are covered with sodden red carpet and chicken wire—to keep guests from slipping into the harbor. But this, appropriately, is where Canada’s plainest-talking tycoon, Jimmy Pattison, moors his spectacular craft, the Nova Spirit.

The boat has a full-time crew of five, including a chef who also serves on Pattison’s jet and in the corporate kitchen of The Jim Pattison Group, his privately owned conglomerate. During the recent APEC summit, Pattison loaned the Nova Spirit to organizers so that the spouses of the 18 assembled leaders—and their bodyguards—could cruise up the coast.

He has also loaned the yacht to former U.S. president George Bush and his wife, Barbara. During the royal visit to Expo 86, the Prince and the late Princess of Wales were guests. And at Christmas, he uses it for carolling cruises, serenading his passengers on the organ, the piano or his trumpet. “I haven’t got a clue how to even turn the engines on,” he says, cheerily. “But it’s a fun deal, it’s good for business.”

Even on an early Sunday morning cruise, Pattison is dressed for a deal. His grey overcoat has a velvet collar, and he is nattily turned out in a black business suit with a red and black tie. He admits that he is always thinking about business, can’t wait to get to the office every morning, is always planning his next move.

And Jimmy Pattison has plenty of moves: long before it was fashionable to be an entrepreneur, he hawked cookware door-todoor. Next, he became a car salesman, building a chain of dealerships that extends across British Columbia. Today, The Jim Pattison Group has 17,000 employees in North America, sales of $3.4 billion in fiscal 1997, and assets valued at $1.7 billion.

Those assets now include the Overwaitea and Buy-Low grocery chains, a fishing company, billboard and outdoor sign companies,

several North American packaging ventures, a major North American periodical distributor, several community radio and television stations, the largest coal export terminal on the West Coast, a financial services and auto leasing operation, and—believe it or not—Ripley Entertainment.

Pattison’s empire has expanded steadily over the past 36 years, largely shaped by his contrarian view of business. While other companies followed fashion, chasing international deals and global markets, Pattison played in his own backyard. He insists that he likes to invest in countries where he understands the language and culture, in companies he can easily visit in his jet. Despite his role as a corporate host at APEC, he has no direct holdings in Asia, and no plans to change that.

While other companies tripped over themselves to raise public capital in the recent stock market boom, Pattison has actually taken two public companies private in 1997. He says he has no intention of ever issuing equity in The Jim Pattison Group. Although it can be a slight handicap in financing the company’s many deals, Pattison quips that remaining private allows him to hide his mistakes. “And I’ve made them all,” he adds.

Another reason for retaining exclusive control of the Group is that it allows Pattison to take a long-term view of investments. He says that he wants the freedom to acquire and develop assets, without pressure from outside investors demanding short-term share price performance.

When it comes to music, however, Pattison loves to perform for the public. Once he’s started, it is tough to tear him away from the massive electronic organ on the Nova Spirit, where he thumps out hymns with great gusto. He bought Frank Sinatra’s former house in Palm Springs, Calif., and named each room after a song. And he admits to sneaking a miniature trumpet into parties, so that he can surprise the other guests with spontaneous riffs. All of which, in fact, is perfectly in tune with the character of Pattison—a one-man band in both music and business.