A couple of weeks ago I got Jimmy Pattison’s autobiography Jimmy out of the library, and it’s been a treat to read.
First, let’s backtrack. Who the heckaroony (totally a word) is Jimmy Pattison, anyway?
According to the Canadian Business list of 100 richest Canadians, my boy Jimmy is the 4th richest guy in the country with a net worth of $7,875,807,140. Considering Jimmy has pretty much 100% of his net worth in privately held companies, I’m impressed Canadian Business could calculate it with such accuracy. I like to imagine the conversation goes something like this:
CB: Hey Jimmy, what’s your net worth?
Pattison: $7.875807140 billion, give or take a couple of loonies.
CB: That’s impressive you know it off the top of your head like that.
Pattison: Man, you guys will believe anything.
Jimmy Pattison has his fingers into a lot of stuff. He’s the owner of Jim Pattison Motors, one of the largest collections of car dealerships in the country. He’s the owner of Overwaitea Food Group, which has Save-on-Foods, a big grocery chain in B.C. and Alberta. He owns Sun Rype Juice and the Guiness World Records brand and Ripley’s Believe It or Not. The last billboard you looked at likely was a Pattison-owned property.
In 2014, the entire company did $8.4 billion in sales and had 39,000 employees. Jimmy still runs the day-to-day operations even though he’s 86. He doesn’t talk to the media much, preferring to stay in his own little private world.
The only bad part about his autobiography is it only covers until 1986. He’s had almost 30 years to do stuff since then. If a part two comes, I’ll be all over it. In the meantime, here are five important lessons from the book.
Don’t be afraid to borrow
Jimmy really started to expand in the late-1960s when he took over Neonex, a neon sign company. He used Neonex shares as currency to acquire all sorts of assets. Remember, this was the time when conglomerates were all the rage. Everyone wanted a piece of them.
Neonex ended up buying dozens of small companies, most of which ended up being sold. It bought a RV and trailer maker. It owned a WHA hockey team in Vancouver and tried to buy several MLB teams to move to Vancouver. And it made an ultimately unsuccessful run at Maple Leaf Mills, Canada’s dominant bread company at the time.
Jimmy was constantly working the banks to get more money for Neonex. When CIBC turned him down, he went to TD, which wasn’t the big player it is now. When the Canadian banks shut him out, he went abroad, borrowing money in New York and London.
The biggest reason Jimmy Pattison was able to become a billionaire is because he borrowed aggressively. You could argue it was partially luck it all worked out, but if he didn’t take on any debt he would have been another anonymous businessman somewhere with $10 or $100 million to his name.
Jimmy Pattison himself estimates Neonex had discussions with hundreds of companies about possible buyouts in the early 1970s alone. He still claims to look at a few hundred different deals each year and will do about 8-10 transactions.
I’ve always been a patient investor. If I don’t like what’s out there, I’ll pass, sitting on my capital until the right opportunity comes along. Reading Jimmy has made me realize there are tons of great businesses out there, ones I should be at least looking at. Even getting a mediocre return on my capital is better than having it sit in Tangerine’s pockets.
Not knowing when to sell
My favorite part of the book is when Jimmy starts playing the silver market in the late-1970s.
Long story short, Pattison’s $25,000 investment ends up being worth some $70 million. He used leverage to bet hard on silver during the greatest bull market in precious metals history.
Knowing what the man has accomplished, you’d think he cashed out at the top. He did not. He rode his silver holdings all the way back down, finally getting out completely when his secretary phoned him up one day and told him there was nothing left. Jimmy accepted his fate and moved on.
Except the secretary was lying. Pattison still had about a million ounces of silver he owned and had forgotten about. She didn’t want to see him lose everything, so she lied, assuming he had forgotten about the rest. He ended up turning his $25,000 original investment into about $6 million.
You can look at that story in two different ways. Jimmy Pattison remembers it as that time he made $6 million in the silver market. Even after losing all those paper gains, he was still bullish enough on commodities to hire a full-time trader for his office.
Mistakes will happen
One thing I realized after reading Jimmy is even guys who have a lot of success make mistakes.
In the 1970s, Pattison got into all sorts of terrible businesses. He invested a couple of million in an oil venture that never did materialize. The hockey team ended up being a disaster. He went into several real estate joint ventures that ended up being completed and sold at a loss after partners went bankrupt.
As long as the good deals outnumber the mistakes and you’re moving forward, it’s all good. Jimmy realized that, and I need to as well.
You need big wins
I don’t have the book on me, so this story is from memory. It goes something like this though.
In the mid-1970s, Neonex ended up buying Orange Crush for approximately $20 million. Pattison realized there was significant value in the bottling assets, plus Orange Crush has a brand name that’s even recognizable today. About a year later, after a brief bidding war with Dr. Pepper, he sold the U.S. operations to Proctor and Gamble for more than he paid for the whole company.
Neonex still had Crush’s Canadian operations. It sold two major bottling plants in Montreal and Toronto before Proctor and Gamble came calling for the Canadian operations too. In total, Neonex sold Orange Crush for more than twice its purchase price in less than two years. Considering the size of the company compared to the whole portfolio, it was the kind of gain that’s company changing in scope.
Should you read Jimmy?
Yes, yes you should. Some of the references are a little dated and there’s altogether too much stuff in there on Expo 86, the world’s fair which Pattison chaired. But those are only minor faults. Jimmy is a treat to read. It’s entertaining enough to keep you engrossed, and the business lessons are second to none.