On Monday of last week, Glen Clark, ex-New Democrat premier of B.C., was hanging off the side of an office tower 28 floors above downtown Vancouver. He didn't have a noose around his neck, as some in the business community might wish. Far from it. After a spectacular fall from political grace four years ago, the 45-year-old Clark is back on top. The recently promoted western vice-president and general manager for the Pattison Sign Group was at an installation site, buckled into a safety harness and standing on an aptly named swing stage. He's intent on learning the sign business from the ground up. "I didn't look down much," he admitted later. But then, he never has.

Almost two years ago, Vancouver billionaire Jimmy Pattison made the kind of educated gamble he's taken all his working life. He hired Clark as manager of the under-performing B.C. arm of his international sign company, one of the largest in North America, with clients from Starbucks to Toyota. There was a collective gasp from the business community. Hire Glen Clark? What is Pattison thinking?

Clark, to understate it, was damaged goods. He'd resigned as premier in August 1999, under RCMP investigation over allegations he received benefits - low-cost home and cottage renovations - from a friend who hoped to gain a government casino licence. Clark lingered for an "uncomfortable year" on the backbenches. NDP support was in free fall and Clark, once the party's brash rising star, was now its greatest liability. In October 2000 he was charged with criminal breach of trust. His 15-year political career, his reputation and his finances were in ruins. "I had a family to support and I needed to work," he says over lunch in a family restaurant on the fringes of his old East Vancouver constituency. "What does an ex-premier do?"

Not for the first time, a former NDP premier - a "socialist" in the Pattison lexicon - talked to the province's most successful free enterpriser. Pattison had hired Dave Barrett in the mid-80s for a successful run as a talk-show host at one of his Vancouver radio stations. But the transition from politics to open-mouth radio is minor compared to the risk he took with Clark. Pattison entrusted part of one of his oldest companies to a disgraced politician facing a criminal charge. Clark's economic policies had alienated the business community. His signature initiative, high-speed ferries to run between Vancouver Island and the Mainland, proved a $500-million disaster. He had zero business experience. "Glen Clark, you've got to remember at the time, was certainly in the doghouse," 74-year-old Pattison cheerfully admits.

One of Pattison's great joys is that his is a privately held corporation, free of the second-guessing of shareholders. He has 26,000 employees worldwide, in companies from food stores to auto dealerships to, believe it or not, Ripley Entertainment. Sales hit $5.5 billion last year; the company has $3.5 billion in assets. Pattison has no need to justify his decision, and yet he settles onto a couch in his 16th-floor Vancouver offices to explain Clark's hiring - one of the most entertaining experiments in social engineering since Prof. Henry Higgins met Eliza Doolittle.

"Why not?" he responds to the inevitable why. "There's a risk when you hire anybody," he says. "We take those risks every day." Yes, he concedes, there was some heat from the public and business colleagues. "We expected that," he says, dismissing it as of no consequence. "Lookit, he had to go out, he had a family, he had to start a new life. Why not with us?"

Pattison liked Clark's aggressive spirit the first time he met the freshly elected opposition MLA at a legislature reception in 1986. "Send him to me," Pattison famously predicted afterwards. "He'll be a millionaire in no time." That boast seemed increasingly unlikely as Clark's political career skyrocketed, then flamed out. Still, Pattison cut him slack when almost no one else would. "The problem with his mistakes is they're much more public than mine," Pattison says charitably. "He's got a few scars. We all get those. There's nothing like getting a few scars to help you mature."

Certainly Clark was mature enough to know his immediate prospects were dim. "I was not very popular in the business community and I had a criminal charge, so that narrowed the job field significantly." He leapt at Pattison's offer, happy for the chance to prove his worth. "It was just a great opportunity to get into the business world and learn from Jimmy, and try to earn my spurs in that field."

There were those who accused him of betraying his ideals, but Clark, once a notorious political scrapper, now has little patience for such doctrinaire views. Ideology and personality are notoriously tangled in British Columbia, he says. "If you're a business person you have to hate the NDP and everybody in it - 'How could Mr. Pattison hire Glen Clark, he's the enemy?' And if you're a union person, it's, 'How could you go work for Jim Pattison, he's the enemy?' All of that is just silly, really," Clark says. "It's very debilitating, and I don't think it happens anywhere else in Canada."

His first year was a blur of activity. The former Neon Products was one of several companies combined under the Pattison Sign Group name. Clark hired a new sales manager, and set about turning around the B.C. operations. At the same time, he sat through his breach of trust trial, which dragged on in the B.C. Supreme Court from January to September 2002. "I was coming into work in the morning, going to court, then coming in after court and on the weekends," he says. "That was a challenge." Justice Elizabeth Bennett found him not guilty. His "folly," she ruled, was only in hiring a neighbour who tried to gain an illegal advantage by renovating the Clarks' home and by helping build a deck at the family cabin. His wife, Dale, crumpled with relief at the verdict. Clark said an "anvil" was lifted from the backs of himself, his wife and their two children, Reid, 15, and Layne, 13.

Not long after, a buoyant Clark was bumped upstairs to western vice-president. The appointment was made by Eloi Duguay, president of the Toronto-based sign group, with Pattison's approval. Pattison credits "Glen and his team" with doubling sales in his region. "He's doing just fine."

A Winnipeg operation was closed. Clark and the management team scouted sites for a new production facility. With sales growing in the U.S., Clark considered Washington state, as well as Saskatchewan and Alberta, before settling on Penticton, in B.C.'s Okanagan Valley. He says the prospect of an ex-B.C. premier steering jobs out of province didn't faze him. "I would have done that," he insists. "If I thought it best for the company to got to Alberta, we'd be in Alberta. I wouldn't be working for Mr. Pattison very long if I couldn't make that decision."

He chose Penticton for its pool of skilled and lower-cost labour, its services and its location, near the U.S. border and midway between the Vancouver and Calgary markets. It's also an area he knows well. "I've got a cabin up there, of course," he says, his laugh remarkably free of bitterness. "With a deck."

Clark is finding that the shift to business management from cabinet and the premier's office isn't as great as some might think. It's still a question of choosing priorities and allocating scarce resources. What he relishes most is his new ability to move quickly. "Government is ponderous, slow, very bureaucratic and very difficult to move," he says. "Even when you're in a senior position like a minister or a premier, often the system will thwart your intentions." Business, at least as Pattison runs it, offers a "fascinating, flexible, adaptive environment," says Clark. Unlike government, there's a clear measure of performance - the bottom line. "You're free to run the company the way you think is best, as long as you get the results."

A case in point is the new Penticton plant, championed by Clark but approved by all four senior managers at the Pattison Sign Group, and, ultimately, by Pattison. The site choice, a former food warehouse, was finalized in December. By March most of the Clark-managed renovations - now there's an act of faith - were completed, and the first of what may eventually reach 70 or 80 staff were at work.

For Wayne Tebbutt, economic development officer for the city of 41,000, landing a "blue chip" Pattison company was a coup. He gives Clark full credit. "He's a good businessman. He stated clearly what he wanted and he never moved from that line. It was a good experience," says Tebbutt, before offering the ultimate compliment. "I wouldn't mind sitting on his deck." By locating in B.C., where Pattison's sign operations are unionized, Clark had to deal with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Clark, once an organizer for the Ironworkers' union, handled negotiations. If the Penticton move was to happen, he warned, he needed a flexible, competitive workforce. The union, happy for the jobs, tempered its demands. Among those across the negotiating table from Clark was Harry Van Beest, a business representative for the IBEW. "He knows both sides of the fence," says Van Beest. "He knew what the company needed, and he also understood how far we could bend."

It's now up to the plant to prove its worth. Pattison gives his operations great autonomy, but he's watching. "The labour laws in Alberta are friendlier than they are in British Columbia," Pattison says, not quite hiding a mild skepticism. "I think that plant would be in Alberta if it wasn't for Glen Clark." Clark concedes: "There are risks associated with that decision."

Friend and foe alike speak of Pattison's early days in the car business, and his practice each month of firing the lowest-performing salesman. In Pattison's view, he was doing the fellow a favour, though in NDP circles that cull is often cited as an example of the ruthlessness of an unfettered free market.

Ask Clark what mistakes he's made in his new career, and he hunches over his coffee cup. "There are people I thought should be terminated and I took too long to terminate them," he says. "I don't like that part of the job and you always want to give people the benefit of the doubt, but in the business environment you've got to move quickly." Many think it's "awful" the way Pattison fired his salespeople, but Clark has come to appreciate that commission salespeople, rather like politicians, work without a net. "It's not awful because people who aren't selling aren't making a living for themselves and their families, and if they can't do it, they should do something that they're good at," he says.

Later, his philosophy on tough love and the art of salesmanship is recounted to Pattison, resplendent this day in a silver hounds-tooth jacket that wouldn't look out of place in one of his car lots. "He's catching on, you see!" he says with a satisfied chuckle. "Glad to hear that."

Maclean's June 9, 2003