Canadian billionaire Jimmy Pattison says his phone won’t stop ringing. There’s nothing like a global crisis to drive deals to those with cash.

“We’re looking today at opportunities like we’ve never had before,” Pattison said in an interview Monday via video conference from Vancouver. “We’ve never been in better shape to invest. The question now is, where do we feel comfortable?”

Sometimes dubbed Canada’s Warren Buffett, the 91-year-old Pattison has a view of the pandemic’s impact that few can match. He presides over an empire that operates in some 85 countries spanning an array of industries: supermarkets, lumber, fisheries, disposable packaging, theme parks, auto dealers and more. Last year, the closely held Jim Pattison Group Inc. had $10.9 billion in revenue and employed 48,000 people.

Pattison said he has been contacted by a number of private companies, some of them “significant” in size, that need money because of COVID-19 and the recession. He won’t speculate on where he’ll do his next deal. But he is certain that some of the economic changes wrought by the pandemic will be lasting. Airlines are out, downtown hotels face a difficult road back and the restaurant industry will never be the same, Pattison said.

Among his own companies, the hardest hit have been tourism-related stalwarts like Ripley Entertainment Inc., which typically hosted 15 million visitors annually at its museums and aquariums, and the Canadian franchise of Great Wolf Lodge, a chain of indoor water parks.

“I can tell you one thing -- there’s never been anything like this in the history of the world,” said Pattison, who grew up in western Canada during the Great Depression. “Going forward, it’s certainly going to affect what we buy.”

Before the pandemic, “I’d have put 100 per cent of our money into a Great Wolf Lodge, but I wouldn’t today.” The coronavirus isn’t a one-time risk either, he said. “It can happen again.”

Climate Focus

Pattison, Canada’s fifth-richest person, built his empire from a single, loss-making Vancouver car dealership he acquired in 1961. His fortune today is worth about US$6.7 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. In his office hangs a framed photo of Pattison and Buffett with a message scribbled across the top by the head of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.: “To a man who’s built a business as interesting as Berkshire’s.”

Pattison sits in a conference room at his 18th-floor headquarters in a tower that typically looks onto Vancouver’s pristine harbor and craggy, forest-draped mountains beyond. Recently, that view has been obscured by a sickly gray haze. Smoke from forest fires raging along the U.S. West Coast has been drifting north, at times making Vancouver No. 1 on the list of cities with the world’s most polluted air.

“We have got to focus on the environment, the environment, the environment,” Pattison said. “Anything that is negative, in my opinion, to do with the environment is going out of business sooner or later.”

It’s a remarkable shift in Pattison’s preoccupations. When interviewed by Bloomberg in 2018 over the course of two days, he never once mentioned climate change.

But the signs have become impossible to ignore. Exploding pine beetle populations are decimating the province’s lumber industry, with major impacts on companies such as Vancouver-based Canfor Corp., of which Pattison holds 51 per cent. The 700 boats his fishing business owns are finding it harder to catch fish in some places as oceans get warmer.

“It is absolutely the number one thing that we have on our list when we’re looking at buying something -- how does that affect the environment,” Pattison said.

Yet that conviction wavers when it comes to Westshore Terminals Investment Corp., the largest coal loading facility on the west coast of the Americas.

“If people want to buy the coal -- we’re not selling the coal, we’re a service department, if you like, shipping it -- that’s not our decision,” he said, acknowledging it’s a cash cow with a shrinking life span. “There will be a day, in my opinion, when there will be no thermal coal going out of that terminal.”

In the meantime, the former used car salesman is getting familiar with the trappings of the new energy economy. He spent last weekend test driving a Toyota hydrogen car around southwestern British Columbia.

“All I’ve driven is engines all my life and so when you get something that’s this smooth and fast and goes like a dart and quiet,” he trails off, marveling. “Boy, I never drove anything nicer.”

Succession Plan

Like most, the coronavirus has changed Pattison’s daily life in unexpected ways. He values face-to-face interaction so much that he drives across part of Canada every year to visit his supermarkets and auto dealerships in person. Today, he estimates 70 per cent of the desks at Pattison Group’s headquarters are empty and he’s wondering how to plan that annual road trip when communities fearful of the virus don’t welcome out-of-town license plates.

“I’ll go as soon as I think they won’t throw tomatoes at me,” he said.

Yet some things remain constant. Pattison still comes into his headquarters every day, as does Maureen Chant, his executive assistant for the past 57 years. He’s still acquiring car dealerships -- four more in the last 120 days.

Pattison, who turns 92 on Oct. 1, talks matter-of-factly about his group’s succession plan, which he reviews and updates every quarter.

“If I don’t make it to dinner tonight, we’re all set to go,” he said. He has lined up the directors, the management team, a role for a foundation, as well as the next chief executive officer.

“There’s got to be one boss,” he said. Who will it be? “You’ll find out.”