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Jim Pattison keeps pace in world of rapid change

‘They can get up in the morning and find themselves behind already,’ Jim Pattison says of companies that don’t innovate.

Ron Sangha

You could put any number of labels on Jim Pattison but coming up with a single descriptor would always fall short.

Salesman, entrepreneur, businessman, community leader, philanthropist, visionary, icon; he is among Canada's richest people, with a personal fortune of about $9.5-billion, according to the most recent Bloomberg Billionaires Index. But even that doesn't do justice to a man whose holdings include food and beverage, media, entertainment, automotive and agriculture, periodical distribution and marketing, signs, packaging, forestry products, port services and investments.

His Jim Pattison Group stretches around the world from its base in Vancouver, encompassing about 36,000 employees in 505 locations with sales of more than $8.1-billion in 2013.

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His story is legend: A job washing cars at a gas station turned into an opportunity to sell a car when the regular salesman was away. By 1961, he opened a Pontiac dealership and never looked back.

Mr. Pattison has never been shy of philanthropy, either. The Globe and Mail notes he consistently donates 10 per cent of his income, in the past year or so giving $5-million to Victoria Hospitals Foundation alone.

What is also clear in Mr. Pattison's thinking is the importance of innovation. There's the Jim Pattison Centre of Excellence in Sustainable Building Technologies and Renewable Energy Conservation in Penticton, B.C.

Another example within Pattison Group's holdings is beverage maker SunRype, which notes that "healthy innovation" is the guiding principle behind the company's products.

Ask him about it and the 85-year-old responds with a shrug and says innovation really wasn't a conscious thing in the beginning; it was more about getting to the next step.

"I never seriously thought about it until everyone started talking about it," he said. "My object was to survive. I think the basis is that there has always been change; what is different to me today is the speed of change. No matter what business you are in, there is change and it's happening pretty quickly."

Staying competitive, in his own thinking, has more to do with keeping pace with change and seeing opportunities – or, conversely, threats to existing business – to stay competitive, he said.

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Forty-year business cycles are down to 10 and even five now, and the time to react is compressed. "When I first started you could adapt fairly reasonably in a time period," he said. "But today with technology, it can change so quickly and many businesses become obsolete. It's that whole idea of change and the speed of that change."

Still, he said, change is opportunity.

"It's quite normal to hear of a change and see it as a problem but it's probably an opportunity, depending on how quickly you can adjust," he said.

It's more than just the person at the top who sets the tone, he said, noting a company's entire team has to have an open attitude.

"Today, it's a world of innovation and rapid change so it's important to have an attitude of openness and to be willing and ready to give up the things that got you where you are," he said. "I'm not talking about the fundamentals, but an attitude to adapt on a daily basis."

Health is one key area in which Mr. Pattison has been particularly interested. In addition to the Victoria gift, he donated $1.5-million in 2007 to Vancouver General Hospital's Centre for Excellence in Surgical Education and Innovation, which has been developing and pioneering robotic surgery.

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Again, it was the pace of change that led him to contribute, he said.

"Gosh, [look at] the progress in health care with technology. But it takes capital and then the doctors have to keep up day to day," he said.

In technology, change is endemic, he noted.

"People in the high-tech sector are living with change every hour," he said, noting giant companies, including IBM and to some extent Apple and Microsoft, have had to reinvent themselves. "They can get up in the morning and find themselves behind already."

Still, reacting to change and innovating involve risk, and there are always going to be restraints on how much risk can be undertaken.

"Historically, it will depend on the capital you have," he said. "If you are tight on capital, you have a narrow window to innovate or try things to the amount of risk that is tied to your capital."

The point, though, he said, is you have to try, and Canadians tend to be more conservative when assessing risk and accepting failure, which is in an inherent part of innovation and risk.

"You can't be afraid to fail," he said. "Of course, you don't want to fail. I've made more mistakes than anyone I know. Sometimes I learned something and sometimes I just find myself doing it again. It makes me mad when I wasn't smart enough to learn the first time. You just think it's going to be different the next time and it's not, as it turns out."

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