How Canadian billionaire Jim Pattison came around to believe in climate change

On this Wednesday morning, Jim Pattison is in good spirits.

The majority of his business lines are booming, from groceries and lumber to automotive sales and leasing. Only a few of his companies are struggling under the weight of the pandemic. It’s an empire that includes radio and TV stations as well as billboards in airports, train stations and transit locations.

Throughout his corporate office are memorabilia and photos collected over his career. The collection is a who’s who of prominent figures, including Pattison in the Oval Office with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, to hanging out with Oprah Winfrey, and being carried in the arms of Shaquille O’Neal.

While his business career has spanned six decades, it’s only in recent years that Pattison has embraced climate change. Back in 1989, environmentalist David Suzuki spoke to Pattison’s company about climate change during a meeting in Sidney, B.C.

Most managers, including Pattison, disregarded the message as off base and out of touch, except for a few young people in the room who were eager to meet Suzuki.

“Bottom line is — he turned out to be very right,” said Pattison.

It was only when former U.S. vice-president Al Gore spoke to management about 10 years ago that Pattison began to acknowledge the severity of the issue and its wide-ranging impacts. Gore was invited back and spoke to the company for a second time.

There are hundreds of photos on the walls of the Jim Pattison Group office in Vancouver, including this picture taken in the White House. (Kyle Bakk)

These days, climate change comes up in every meeting, said Pattison, since just about every business is impacted by it in one way or another.

The corporate empire began in 1961 with Pattison’s first car dealership in Vancouver. The growth into many other industries and product lines has been fuelled by acquisition.

The company prioritizes certain factors like market share and long-term growth when evaluating a potential target, although climate considerations have risen to the top.

“When we’re talking about buying a company today, the first thing we’re looking at [is] where does it fit into the environmental issues side of things,” he said.

The first Jim Pattison car dealership began in 1961. (Kyle Bakx)

Earlier this month, Pattison celebrated his 93rd birthday while driving around Saskatchewan in a pickup truck visiting various farm equipment dealerships he owns. 

He recently returned from Sweden, where his company’s forestry division does business.

His own office overlooks the Vancouver harbour and the cauldron used for the 2010 Olympics. It’s where he reads three physical newspapers a day, checks stock prices on a terminal, and spends much of his time talking on his desk phone.

While he sees climate change as a priority, his company is still involved in fossil fuels, including the emissions-intensive coal business.

Westshore Terminal Ltd., boasts being the busiest coal facility in all of North America. The Vancouver port facility exports both thermal coal for power plants and metallurgical coal, used in steel-making. The plan, Pattison said, is to exit the thermal coal business within the next 10 years.

“From our company’s point of view, it’ll be less than that,” he said.

On the eve of the UN climate conference in Glasgow, there are calls for the world to finally shake its addiction to thermal coal. 

The Conference of Parties (COP), as it’s known, meets every year and is the global decision-making body set up in the early 1990s to implement the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and subsequent climate agreements.

The burning of coal represents one of the biggest single obstacles to meeting the Paris Agreement goal of limiting warming to 1.5 C.

COP26 president Alok Sharma has urged world leaders to “consign coal to history.”

Westshore Terminal will soon start transitioning some of the facility to handle potash.

“We have to honour our contracts to ship coal, and certainly our customers, we have to look after them. By the same token, the industry has got to transition to things that are friendly to the environment. But it doesn’t happen like that,” said Pattison, snapping his fingers.

“We got to take it one step at a time, as quickly as we possibly can.”

Pattison said many decisions are made at the company and in his personal life to reduce impacts on the environment, although some luxuries remain, he admits, since “we use the yacht and [private] plane for business, when we need it.”

While his business empire continues to expand, his core automotive business is undergoing a revolution of sorts, as manufacturers produce more zero-emission vehicles every year.

Pattison has been impressed after driving both electric and hydrogen vehicles. Still, even someone with so much experience in the sector struggles to predict the speed of the evolution away from gasoline and diesel.

“Definitely, it’s coming,” he said. “It’s just how fast can we transition? We have to do it over time.”

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