The Vancouver Sun
Surprises happen when Glen Clark meets Jimmy Pattison
By Douglas Todd 01-30-2009
That’s the word many commentators were applying to B.C.’s ex-premier, Glen Clark.
It was the summer of 2002 and Clark had just been through a 136-day trial on one count of breach of trust and another of accepting a benefit.
The B.C. Supreme Court judge had not yet issued her verdict on the prosecutor’s complex case, which was based on a massive, multi-million-dollar investigation by the RCMP.
Almost every day for years, the news headlines and broadcasts had been tying Clark’s name to alleged corruption, for the way he had a deck added to the master bedroom at the rear of his east Vancouver home.
That agonizing era, when Clark said he and his family — school librarian Dale and two children — felt they were being pressed down by an “anvil” was a lifetime and a universe away from his victorious election of 1996.
In that halcyon year, Clark had become the province’s second-youngest premier in history. He had replaced Mike Harcourt as New Democratic Party leader and managed a startling defeat of the B.C. Liberal party led by Gordon Campbell.
This is the story of what became of the former union organizer-turned-politician who became B.C. finance minister and then premier — of his later troubles, and of his curious relationship with the province’s richest man, Jimmy Pattison.
It is the story of two men who, rightly or wrongly, almost symbolized political polarization on the west coast of Canada, with one signifying the unionized left and another personifying the capitalistic right.
It is a story with several beginnings.
You could say one of the beginnings resides in working-class east Vancouver, where Clark and Pattison were both raised. (Pattison was born in 1928 and Clark in 1957). Such roots can inject certain people with a fighting spirit.
Another beginning is the day Clark and Pattison first briefly met in 1986. It was in the grand rotunda of the B.C. legislative building, soon after Clark at age 26 had been elected as the new MLA from Vancouver-Kingsway.
Newspapers reported afterward that Pattison was impressed with the drive and personality of the then-young NDP backbencher and told someone, “Send him to me. He’ll be a millionaire in no time.”
The third beginning to the story of the former premier and the man Canadian Business Magazine ranks Canada’s sixth wealthiest person, worth more than $4.5 billion, is more recent. It begins with the moment when Pattison risked trusting Clark, just as countless people from the left and right were writing him off.
How is the feisty east-sider who spent 15 years in the B.C. legislature doing, seven years after Pattison held out his hand with that opportunity to enter the world of business?
Has the one-time NDP leader given up his social democratic principles and become a convert to capitalism?
Some B.C. history is required.
When Pattison (below) contacted Clark in June, 2001, to see if he was willing to work for his giant corporation, it was two years after the beleaguered politician had stepped down as premier.
During that period the media had been providing saturation coverage of Clark’s relationship with a contractor neighbour named Dimitrios Pilarinos who the family had come to know through their kids’ involvement in the Happy Corner pre-school.
The media onslaught started after a TV crew had learned RCMP officers would be raiding the Clarks’ east Vancouver house on March 2, 1999. The public found the shadowy night-time TV images unforgettable.
It took until October 2000 for prosecutors to charge Clark. They accused the ex-premier of promising to aid Pilarinos with a casino application in exchange for accepting a benefit, in the form of a below-cost home renovation.
One of the unusual aspects of the story is the timing of Pattison’s phone call to Clark. It took place months before Clark’s trial actually began. The jury, as the expression goes, was still out on Clark’s guilt or innocence.
“Jimmy asked me my view of the problems, or, as they say in Ireland, ‘The Troubles,’” Clark said in a recent extensive interview.
“And I told him I felt confident and strong about it, because I knew I had done nothing wrong. And he expressed enormous confidence. He hired me while I was still charged with a criminal offence. Now that inspired loyalty on my part.”
Clark was talking as we sat at a small table crammed into a corner of the Havana restaurant on Commercial Drive, a few kilometres from the Renfrew-Collingwood neighbourhood home where Clark was raised and his mother still lives.
It’s the neighbourhood near the Burnaby border where Glen and Dale continue to reside, in the home with the troublesome little deck.
The Commercial Drive restaurant is also not far from the two Roman Catholic independent schools Clark attended — St. Jude’s elementary and Notre Dame secondary.
At Notre Dame, Clark was known as a small, fearless linebacker for the football team. Notre Dame is also where Clark was student council president and played the lead male role in The Sound of Music and later performed in South Pacific.
There was a noisy lunch crowd at Havana’s on the day we talked. Clark had long ago lost the moustache he had while premier, but he was still recognized by one or two diners. They seemed friendly toward him.
At 51, Clark was wearing a dark jacket and had set aside his long black overcoat. He ordered a spicy chicken salad as he told his story.
“I had people who said they’d hire me if I was found not guilty. But I didn’t have anybody phoning me, other than Jimmy, who would hire me … on the strength of, I guess, my assertion that I was innocent,” he said.
Originally, Pattison hired Clark to operate the B.C. branch of Neon Products, which builds and maintains electric signs. At the time, Pattison told The Vancouver Sun that, even though he didn’t agree with some of Clark’s policies as premier, he believed Clark “deserves an opportunity to make a new life outside politics, and he’s got a family to feed.”
Clark began by overseeing 179 employees across B.C.
“I had an eight-month trial after Jimmy hired me,” Clark said.
“I’d go to the (Neon Products) office at six o’clock and work to about nine. And then go downtown and sit in court until four. And then go back to work until eight or nine at night. When I first started, I did that for months.”
As if his work-and-court schedule wasn’t bruising enough, many people — from the left, right and centre — were actively criticizing the ex-premier for joining the team of an arch-capitalist such as Pattison.
Some foes mocked Clark. Former Liberal deputy premier Christy Clark laughingly said at the time: “I hope he (Glen Clark) is not in charge of any of the accounting functions for the company, or Pattison might regret his decision.”
At the other end of the spectrum, Clark confided, some of his former labour and NDP allies acted as if he’d betrayed the cause by working for Pattison.
“I hear it from the left and right. But I always ask them the same question, ‘Well, what would you like me to do? I can’t retire. I have a mortgage to pay. I have a family. I have aspirations like everybody else in terms of quality of life. So what would you like me to do?’ I didn’t get any offers from unions.”
Throughout the public hammering of his reputation — when Clark was routinely condemned as “disgraced” and was quoted saying the public had already found him guilty because he’d been “tried in the media” — the ex-premier said he kept in mind the existentialist aphorism: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
“You go from that kind of high, intense, narcissistic political life to a very difficult period, where people don’t return your calls, where they have trouble looking at you, or look at you funny. And it was very hard on my family,” he said.
After more than three years of having his name blackened in the public eye, Clark was acquitted of all criminal charges on August 29, 2002.
B.C. Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth Bennett concluded that Clark did not meddle in a casino application for Pilarinos.
However, Pilarinos was convicted of conspiring to influence Clark, who the judge deemed was unaware of the conspiracy.
The judge rejected prosecutors’ claims that Clark had illegally underpaid Pilarinos by $1,800. The total cost of the deck had been $15,000.
In an oft-quoted line from her 131-page judgment, Bennett ruled that “"there is nothing in his (Clark’s) conduct that crosses the line from an act of folly to behaviour calling for criminal sanctions.”
For his part, Clark told me: “The judge really did me a favour. She went out of her way to exonerate me.”
The only negative line in the entire judgment, Clark said, was the one about an “act of folly.” He noted that many media highlighted the phrase.
Although Clark worried it might sound trite, he said in our conversation he feels “privileged” or “blessed” that he and his family, including his son, Reid (now 21, working as a chef and attending college) and daughter Layne (now 18 and at Simon Fraser University) survived the ordeal and have come out the other end.
Although Clark no longer attends Roman Catholic church, he keeps up a connection with some of his former Catholic friends and school teachers and continues to believe in God.
“Once a Catholic always a Catholic.” He thinks he retains many Christian values, most of which have to do with social justice and the poor.
He doesn’t hide that the bashing inflicted on his reputation and his family was “awful.” But he says such ordeals “can also be positive in terms of your world view. You become more introspective. And you think more about what’s important in your life, in your world. You become, I think, a bit more sanguine about things.”
Working for Jimmy
But how has Clark worked out with the Pattison Group, Canada’s third largest private company?
He said he is working 70 to 80 hours a week.
He is paid “very well.”
He is away from home two or three nights out of every seven.
Pittsburgh. Toronto. New York. Kelowna. Los Angeles. Orlando. Atlanta. Chicago.
He said he and Dale, who works three days a week as a teacher-librarian in south Delta, joke that their 28-year-marriage is lasting because he’s not home very often.
But what does he actually do for the Pattison Group?
He was coy.
Well, he said, it’s on record he is CEO of the News Group North America. And he oversees some other Pattison divisions.
But for the answer actual to the question, Clark told me: “Ask Jimmy.”
Clark said he had not told Pattison he was going to talk to me. I guessed he was wondering what Pattison would think. Privately owned companies like the Pattison Group don’t have to tell the public much at all.
I put a call through to Pattison’s long-time assistant, Maureen Chant. A day or two later my cellphone rang and the man on the line said, “Jim Pattison here.”
I told Pattison that Clark said I should ask him what the former premier does for the Pattison Group, which chalked up $6.4 billion in sales in 2007.
Pattison, 80, was matter-of-fact. Not effusive.
“He is executive vice-president of the Jim Pattison Group. He has responsibilities for a number of divisions that we have. Let me just flip through our book here.
Pattison told me the former premier is responsible for Jim Pattison Lease, headquartered in Calgary.
(A Pattison Group catalogue says it leases out 15,000 vehicles annually.)
Pattison then said Clark is responsible for Canadian Fishing Company, headquartered in Vancouver.
(The catalogue says it is Canada’s largest producer of wild salmon and herring roe.)
Pattison said Clark is also responsible for Jim Pattison Sign Group, headquartered in Edmunston, N.B
. (The company leases and maintains more than 40,000 signs.)
Clark is also responsible for Ripley Entertainment, headquartered in Orlando, Fla.
(It includes Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, Guinness World Records Museums and Louis Tussaud’s Waxworks and is the world’s largest chain of museum-type tourist attractions. Photo left, Florida.)
In addition to overseeing these global Pattison Group divisions and others, Pattison confirmed Clark is president and CEO of the News Group North America, based in Richmond.
It is North America’s second-largest magazine and book wholesaler.
Pattison kept flipping through his corporate catalogue. He said he has also appointed Clark a director of Sun-Rype Products Ltd.,
a fruit-juice marketing company based in Kelowna, and a director of Westar Group, a resource company.
“I think that’s everything.”
What does this all mean in terms of Clark’s responsibilities? Can Pattison give me a sense of how many employees the former NDP legislator ultimately overseas?
Pattison went back over his list, tallying up the number of employees by memory. One thousand five hundred employees there. Five hundred there. Two thousand there. One thousand there.
When he finished adding up the employees Clark is responsible for, Pattison said:
“Glen is responsible for about 9,000 employees today. That’s Canada and the U.S
Nine thousand out of a total of 30,000 Pattison Group employees.
“Glen is very popular through the company
,” Pattison said. “I like working with him. Glen overall is doing fine. We’re very happy with him.”
When I remind Pattison about his 23-year-old reported claim that he would make Clark a millionaire if he wanted, the man Forbes magazine ranks as the world’s 178th most wealthy person said the story was true.
“That’s what I did say years ago. But we don’t talk about those things (salaries). We don’t talk publicly about personnel, obviously, except to say Glen has been with us seven years now and he’s done a good job and we like him.”
I reminded Pattison he hired Clark before his trial began. I suggested that may have required some bravery on Pattison’s part.
The business leader didn’t seize the opportunity to look like Clark’s redeemer.
“Well, either way, I made the decision and I believed in Glen Clark then. He didn’t walk into a big job. He came in here and took over management for the electric sign company in B.C. Then I gave him more responsibility. We transferred him to the magazine company. And he did a good job again. He has earned his way up the ladder here.”
I asked if they spend much time together.
“Oh yeah. We flew to Toronto together last Monday and then Glen went to New York.” (Clark said earlier he has often been to meetings and events on Pattison’s yacht and in his southern California residence, which was once owned by Frank Sinatra.)
When I ask if there might be a special bond between Clark and Pattison because they both grew up in rough-and-tough East Vancouver, Pattison responded with some enthusiasm:
“You’re absolutely right. We both came from east Vancouver.”
But he wouldn’t elaborate.
Asked if there was anything else he wanted to say about Clark, Pattison said, “No. We treat everybody the same.”
Yet Pattison couldn’t help commenting on the obvious. “Everybody is not the ex-premier of the province, but we prefer to not talk about individuals publicly. The one thing I can say is he’s worked hard and he’s doing a good job. Which he is.”
Glen Clark on Pattison
For his part, Clark is ebullient about Pattison.
He has many reasons for it.
One reason is their mutual roots in east Vancouver, where Pattison attended John Oliver high school.
“I think that’s a big part of it for me,” Clark said. “I think that’s the thing. There aren’t that many people who are that wealthy who didn’t inherit money.”
The self-made quality of Pattison affects everything about the ethos that operates within his transnational company, Clark maintained.
“There are very few (rich people) who actually made their money. And I think if you look at the Pattison Group of companies, one of the nice things about it is that you won’t find any pompous, arrogant people. They’re all down to earth, and Jimmy’s more down to earth than anybody. No one’s putting on airs or doing fancy things.”
A similar what-you-see-is-what-you-get quality could be one of the things Pattison saw in Clark way back when they first met.
There was enough of a connection then that Clark, when he later became finance minister and premier, sometimes asked Pattison to advise the NDP government on economic issues.
Clark recounts their first meeting this way:
He had just been elected as an MLA. Pattison and businessman Helmut Eppich, of EBCO Industries, had both been named by then-premier Bill Vander Zalm to the Order of B.C.
At the awards ceremony, Eppich ended up telling Pattison how he had come to know Clark, who had previously worked for eight months for the Ironworkers Union.
“After the ceremony, Helmut introduced me to Jimmy. And he started telling Jimmy the story of how I’d unionized his plant,” Clark said, “how I was there at 4:30 every morning. How I’d been to people’s houses and successfully unionized them — after 10 tries by other people. Helmut, who was a very honourable guy, also made a deal with me to negotiate a first contract in good faith, which he lived up to, and I did as well.”
Clark thought that was the end of it. But the next day he read the newspaper and saw that Pattison had told someone he could make him a millionaire.
Do they ever talk about that meeting, which has become near-legendary in B.C.?
Okay. But how do the business people Clark meets all over North America treat him, given that he was a former union organizer who was considered a brash, headline-making leader of a centre-left government?
“I think initially there might have been challenges. And I’m sure there are people who still don’t like me to this day. But I’ve never run into it,” Clark said.
“I think business people respect the fact you’re running a company, or managing a company, and you’re involved with the Pattison organization. I think they deal with you as a person to whom Jimmy has given the seal of approval.”
This comment relates to one of the things that Clark appreciates about business, compared to government.
Business, Clark said, is a meritocracy.
At least at its best.
“If you work for Jimmy it’s a meritocracy. Too often in big government or big business there are other factors involved. There’s politics involved,” Clark said.
“I’ve come to the view that big bureaucracies in general are problematic. They’re inherently conservative. They stifle innovation. They’re slow-moving. They’re hard to change.”
The Pattison Group is highly decentralized, Clark said, with each company operating almost autonomously under their CEOs.
“Jimmy looks at the bottom-line numbers on how they’re performing. They’re not micromanaged. As long as their performance is good they do well.”
As for himself, Clark wants to make clear he is the CEO of just one Pattison company, the News Group North America. (The Pattison Group catalogue says News Group North America distributes books and magazines to 30,000 retail outlets each week, including to more than one-quarter of the U.S. market and half the Canadian market.)
But when Pattison told me Clark is “responsible” for all the other Pattison Group divisions that he named, which together have more than 9,000 employees, Clark had already tried to make it clear he simply oversees them.
“I don’t run them. I’m there to help analyse and question them.”
In any case, as one would expect of any loyal senior executive, it’s perhaps not startling to hear that Clark believes his boss runs his companies fairly.
But what about that almost infamous story that went around decades ago, the one about Pattison’s policy of each month terminating the lowest-selling car salesman at his dealerships?
Clark knows the story well.
“It’s a true story. But let me defend him. I’m 100 per cent on his side, which might surprise people, because it sounds horrible.”
That story is unique because it applies only to commissioned salespeople, said Clark, who added he has come to work closely with such people in the sign and car businesses.
“In some cases people are on 100-per-cent commission. So if you’re not selling signs, or selling cars, then you’re not feeding your families. And so you should actually be doing something else that makes a living.”
Clark said he has nothing but admiration for the super-confident people who tend to do commissioned sales. But he said: “Letting go a commissioned salesperson is not like terminating somebody on the green chain or an assembly line. It’s not a heartless thing. I really, genuinely say that.”
The difference between business and politics
With all this praise of Pattison, many will no doubt accuse Clark of selling out to unrestrained capitalism. So what’s happened to his politics?
Clark initially said he has a rule about not publicly airing his partisan or political views now that he’s with the Pattison Group — because it’s never smart to “alienate customers” with such thoughts.
But he quickly added he doesn’t have to work for a union to have strong political opinions.
Countless employees — from electricians to journalists to senior executives — quietly and respectfully work for people who don’t share their politics, he said.
“It doesn’t mean you’ve parked your political views at the door. I don’t understand this purist argument that I shouldn’t be doing this. Some people seem to want me wear a hair shirt or something.”
Although Clark is not active in partisan politics, one thing he does is privately support his old colleague and friend, Vancouver-Kingsway NDP MLA Adrian Dix.
And he added that he continues to hold political opinions because “I’m still a member of the Human Party. In my view I haven’t betrayed my politics or my principles or anything else. I’m just not trying to influence people in a partisan way.”
As for capitalism, he thinks the marketplace is very efficient at allocating goods and services — that capitalism can be more effective than “some Albanian model” or the old Soviet Union, which operated on state-controlled communism.
But, Clark added, “There are limits to the market, and there’s excesses to the market. And we’re seeing that played out now in the United States. (The current economic meltdown) argues the case for government regulation and intervention.”
Government can offer people things, he said, that the marketplace cannot.
He fondly recalled some of the policy decisions he was involved in while serving as an opposition MLA from 1986 to 1991, as B.C. finance minister — the youngest ever — from 1991 to 1996, followed by three years as premier.
“The wonderful thing about politics is the ability to make a difference in so many people’s lives.”
He said he felt it was important to sign the Nisga’a treaty in 1999 as one of his last acts as premier. It was the first modern land-title agreement in B.C. He also lowered post-secondary tuition fees.
However, Clark became more passionate about how he abolished tuition fees for adults who wanted to finish their high-school diplomas. The adult students were, he said, often struggling, from broken families or addicted.
He recalled one college graduation ceremony where a former prostitute with children spoke movingly about the value of being given the chance to get an education. “Half the crowd was crying.”
The big difference between business and government, he said, is that government always has multiple objectives. The goals of business tend to be simpler, centring on making money while being ethical and non-exploitive. The hardest decisions in business, he said, involved laying off employees.
“But in government, there are many decisions with no right answer. It may sound trite to say that. But there really aren’t. You’re making judgments all the time based on a strong moral compass,” he said.
“Especially in health care. If you had to cut costs, the minister of health would say: ‘If we cut here, we can prove to you [that] people will die next year. But if we cut funding over here, maybe an equal number of people will die.’”
Clark said he always ran his policies through what he calls “the filter of social justice.” He wanted to know how much each decision would affect the poorest 20 per cent of British Columbians.
It’s one reason Clark opposes high taxes on cigarettes. Studies show the poor smoke more. Although he knows progressive people can make an argument for cigarette taxes or carbon taxes on fuel, in the name of “equity,” Clark always wonders how such policies will affect the “most vulnerable.”
The same kind of varied considerations went into his decisions to build roads, particularly the Vancouver Island Highway. “How do you build a highway on time and on budget while training more people, particularly disadvantaged people or aboriginal youth? Should it have four lanes? Or six lanes with two for HOV? These decisions that seem simple have multiple layers.”
Clark acknowledged he took his competitive spirit into the legislature and continues to love watching all kinds of sports — including Canadian and American football, plus Canucks hockey and the Glasgow Celtic soccer team (to which his Scottish Catholic father was loyal).
“The legislature is very much a macho thing. It’s more like a sports locker room. And I like that. I see why many people don’t like it. Women in particular find it difficult. And maybe it should change. But I liked the cut and thrust of debate. The more rowdy and raucous the better, as far as I was concerned,” he said. He laughed softly.
Being in charge and being more circumspect
Alan Charlton, Clark’s old drama and English teacher at Notre Dame secondary, recently had lunch with the rising Pattison Group executive. Charlton said he could see Clark’s enthusiasm for his new profession “shining in his eyes.”
Charlton, 73, who continues to teach part-time at the east Vancouver Catholic high school, said:
“Glen has always had this tremendous love for organizing and being in charge and getting things done. He’s obviously revelling in what he’s doing. He’s engaged with something that requires a great deal of responsibility. And he’s being trusted by Jimmy, who is there to keep him in check. He’s obviously found his niche.”
Charlton, who has for decades written a weekly column on movies for the B.C. Catholic newspaper, said Clark may have shown a bit of inexperience when he was finance minister and premier.
“He would now be more circumspect. But he’s always had a passion for looking after the underdog. And any mistakes he made were probably made with the best of intentions. He still has a great deal of idealism.”
Charlton remembers directing Clark as a high school student in The Sound of Music and South Pacific. “He was no Ezio Pinza (a legendary operatic bass), but he sang pleasantly in his baritone voice and performed passionately. He gave it 100 per cent. And he came through for you. I don’t think he’s ever done anything by half-measure.”
Charlton believes Clark still carries that same “boyish enthusiasm” he had as a teenager.
“And I think he’s willing to share his passion with others, to give to others. He’s very bright. Very bright indeed. But he’s still an east end kid who recognizes he’s got a lot to be grateful for. When the opportunities came, he went for them. He’s not smug about it”
Learning to deal
with hostile people
Clark doesn’t think much about politics any more. He’s too busy. But if he was in politics he believes he’d now find it harder to be in opposition.
Because he’s older. Because of his former Troubles. Because of the bashing his reputation took with the criminal investigation and the resulting media coverage.
And because of doing business with a wide range of people.
“You become more forgiving. You’re less black and white. You’re more understanding of the issues at play. And the nuances of public policy and the difficult choice you have to make.”
One of the big lessons that has been hammered home for him in business is the value of developing relationships with people, including with customers who are hostile.
“When you have a problem in business with a customer the absolutely best thing you can do is go see the customer. You tend to want to not go into a hostile situation. I think it’s one of the problems I had in government. The problem the NDP has. I’m not arguing the cliche [that] it’s too polarized, but the polarization stops you from picking up the phone as much as you should and dealing with people who disagree with you.
“I mean, I was finance minister at 32. And it’s not a criticism of myself. But you don’t know. When you’re in the NDP and you’re young and you get elected and you have a union background you don’t really know the people who are running the big businesses. It doesn’t mean you can’t do the job. But I would venture to say it would be a good idea to spend a lot of time with the people who disagree with you, to try to develop a relationship with people in business and in labour.”
He would make the same recommendation to Premier Gordon Campbell.
“It’s to his credit he had a conversion — I was going to say ‘on the road to Damascus’ — on the aboriginal question. I suspect what happened (to Campbell) … is that he had no relationship with aboriginal people and no genuine understanding … and then he got into office and was confronted with real issues and started to develop relationships with people in the bureaucracy as well as aboriginal people.”
Since Clark and Pattison see each other at least once a week and spend a fair amount of time together traveling and at meetings, I asked the former NDP premier if he and Pattison talk much about these kinds of topics, including politics?
“Yeah. Absolutely. Because we’re human beings. We’re engaged people, right?”
Does Pattison value Clark’s political opinion?
“Yeah. Sure,” he said.
Then he added:
“He’d never vote for me.”
On the other hand, Clark believes he has learned a tremendous amount from Pattison.
He said: “I think it would make me better if I ever went back to government.”
I swore Clark winked when he said it.
I asked him if he winked.
My digital recorder contains no evidence of an answer.