By Stephen Forgacs | Photography by Jeff Topham
Jim Pattison is keen to recognize others for their role in his decision, announced in March, to give $75 million to support the construction of the new St. Paul’s Hospital. Dressed in a light purple suit jacket and matching tie, Pattison obliges a photographer and stands for a photograph with his assistant of 54 years, Maureen Chant, whom he credits with encouraging him to make the gift, which at the time was the largest ever to a Canadian hospital.
When he sits down to talk, he’s warm, friendly and attentive, and very much to the point.
The importance of giving back is something he was taught by his parents as a child, and the decision to support St. Paul’s was, he says, quite simple. He mentions that as a child the Sisters at St. Paul’s cared for him when he had his appendix out, that his mother was well looked after there, and that St. Paul’s did a great job of caring for visitors to Expo 86, which he led as president and CEO. But ultimately the decision to support a charity hinges on the answer to one question.
“The question we ask ourselves is, ‘Will it make a difference?’ That’s all. That’s the question that I always ask. Will this make a difference?”
The Jim Pattison Medical Centre, where the new St. Paul’s will be located, will make an immense difference, says Dr. Jeff Pike, Physician Lead, Clinical Planning, St. Paul’s Redevelopment. “The opportunity to build a completely new health campus in BC, particularly in an urban environment, will not happen again in our lifetimes,” he says. “This is our chance for a major step forward around the needs of our patients—together as citizens, as care providers, as government and health-care leaders, as educators. We all share a deep responsibility to deliver on this opportunity for BC, and Mr. Pattison has demonstrated the strength of his commitment to our shared vision through his gift.”
Pattison’s gift will also help St. Paul’s Foundation meet the challenge of building the new hospital, says Dick Vollet, CEO of St. Paul’s Foundation. “Having someone like Jim Pattison put his name behind the new St. Paul’s sends a clear message to the community that we are ready to transform health care in the province.”
The message is getting through. Since Pattison’s gift was announced, both St. Paul’s Foundation and Pattison himself have received a considerable amount of correspondence from people praising the donation.
Even with Pattison’s gift, St. Paul’s Foundation still has a lot of money to raise in order to contribute its share to the massive project. Success will depend on the participation of thousands of British Columbians, participation that Pattison says is essential, no matter the size of the contribution.
“If a lot of people give a little it still adds up to a lot. And it’s not the amount; it’s participating that’s important,” he says. “I think a lot of people who give smaller gifts in many ways give more than we have. Because sometimes it’s a sacrifice for them personally to do it.”
The importance of this sacrifice, of giving even when you have little to give, was made clear to Pattison at a very young age. “It started with tithing,” he says, referring to the practice of giving a percentage of earnings to the church. “I can remember when I would get an allowance. It was 50 cents. My dad would say, ‘Now Jimmy, make sure you put five cents in the collection plate.’ And I did.”
Pattison moved to Vancouver from Saskatchewan when he was six. His mother and father quickly became involved in the community and took young Jimmy along with them to volunteer at a gospel mission at 40 East Hastings Street. He continued to volunteer there, alongside his father, for 20 years.
“My father never made any serious money, but we always shared what we had,” he says. “We didn’t own a house, but at Christmas my dad would always bring home people who were less well off than we were, and we didn’t have a lot.”
This early example set by his parents clearly influenced Pattison’s values and long-standing philanthropy. And it may explain why he prefers to see credit for the legacy he’s creating for British Columbians assigned to the people who shaped his values and influenced his decisions, particularly his parents and, in the case of the St. Paul’s gift, his long- time assistant, Maureen.
“Maureen was very supportive, my daughter Cindy was, the whole board was,” he says, referring to the Jim Pattison Foundation Board.
Maureen took a lead role in managing the logistics of the St. Paul’s gift, says Pattison. She has also been working closely with Pattison’s daughter, Cindy, to ensure proper stewardship of Pattison’s philanthropic endeavours.
“Maureen, and now Cindy, spent hundreds and hundreds of hours dealing with people to give money away over the years,” Pattison says. “It’s not easy. Over time we get thousands of requests.”
The Jim Pattison Group, the business empire that Pattison has built since acquiring his first car dealership in 1961, today has 545 locations world-wide and interests in everything from outdoor advertising and radio stations to grocery stores and forest products. Many of these businesses engage in charitable giving, often via the Jim Pattison Foundation.
As the owner of Canada’s second-largest privately held company, with revenues of $9.6 billion in 2016, Pattison has the ability to make a real difference through philanthropy and in the past year he’s made his largest gifts. In March he made the gift to St. Paul’s and in May he made another large gift, of $50 million, to the new Children’s Hospital of Saskatchewan (which will be renamed Jim Pattison Children’s Hospital).
The likelihood that these gifts will make a difference is clearly Pattison’s top criterion in choosing causes to support. His recent donations – to St. Paul’s and Saskatchewan – suggest another factor is the potential to deliver benefits to the populations of Saskatchewan, where he was born and where he spent his teenage summers working on his uncle’s farm, and to British Columbia, where he grew up and launched his business career.
The benefits to British Columbians will be many, says Vollet. “Building on St. Paul’s expertise in research, teaching and innovation, we will deliver health care that will set a new global standard. It will become easier for our patients to navigate the hospital and the system. And where possible we’ll be taking care into the community, which is particularly important when it comes to reaching people who are marginalized through illness or economics, and often both. The patient journey will be greatly eased, bringing care to our patients, wherever and whenever they need it.”
Ultimately Pattison’s exceptional gift will benefit all Canadians. It will help both clinical-care programs and medical research thrive at St. Paul’s and, as in the past, discoveries and innovations that originated at St. Paul’s will continue to have a local, national and global impact.
Despite the far-reaching implications of his generosity, Pattison still sees the whole business of giving as pretty straightforward. “My job is to make the money, and theirs,” he says, referring to his foundation’s board, “is to deal with the different options and alternatives.”
For more information on the new St. Paul’s, please visit thenewstpauls.com.
“If a lot of people give a little it still adds up to a lot. And it’s not the amount; it’s participating that’s important. I think a lot of people who give smaller gifts in many ways give more than we have. Because sometimes it’s a sacrifice for them personally to do it.” – Jim Pattison