Lifetime Achievement Award Profile: Pat Butler reflects on a lifetime of earning and giving

An enthusiastic crowd applauded Pat Butler as he accepted his award at the Best Ottawa Business Awards gala in November. Photo by Mark Holleron.

For someone with such a successful career, Pat Butler has effectively flown under the radar. But this has certainly not hindered the advancement of his company.

“Pat is the ultimate entrepreneur, arriving in Ottawa in 1965 with very little money in his pocket. Through hard work, smarts, determination and a continuous growth mentality, he has built one of Ottawa’s largest private-sector entities: the Butler Automotive Group,” said Cyril Leeder, CEO of Myers Automotive Group, who nominated Butler, 85, for the Lifetime Achievement award. 

Butler Automotive Group consists of Leisure Days RV Group, five new car dealerships and three Harley-Davidson motorcycle dealerships, as well as Powersports Canada. While national in scope, Leeder noted, the bulk of operations are local, with many locations in Ottawa, the Ottawa Valley and Eastern Ontario. The group employs more than 1,200 people, about 800 in the Ottawa area. 

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“At 85 years old, he is still active, every day, in the operations of Butler Automotive Group,” said Leeder.

Butler started in the automotive industry in 1956 in Toronto at age 18. He moved to Ottawa in 1965 to work with the Dilawri Group. In 1972, he had scraped together enough of a grubstake to purchase his first dealership, Mckenzie Mercury (now Lincoln Heights Ford Lincoln) and has never looked back. “He has been a serial entrepreneur ever since,” noted Leeder. 

“We are still evolving the company to catch up to him,” Lynn Norton, company chief operating officer, told RV News Magazine earlier this year. “He is still pedal to the metal every single day.

“One of Pat’s greatest assets is his incredible vision for the future,” added Norton. “We as a management team are so fortunate to benefit from his 60 years of experience in the automotive industry.”

“Pat is one of Ottawa’s true gems,” said Leeder in his letter of recommendation. “He has spent 66 years working in the automotive business and 50 of those years with ownership in Ottawa. He has helped build a significant number of businesses, played a major role in the development of many careers, generously gives back to the community he calls home, all the while seeking no personal attention or limelight.”

Butler is the 12th recipient of the award, which is presented to a businessperson who demonstrates long-term business success, innovation and perseverance, strong leadership and a legacy of community building. 

OBJ recently asked Butler to share a bit of his past, in his own words.

How did you get your start in business?

I grew up in the Maritimes and my father was a fisherman. My first job was selling fish door to door to our neighbours. When I was 18, I moved to Toronto and worked as a lot attendant at a car dealership. Before long I was selling cars and eventually managing dealerships. In 1964, I moved to Ottawa and landed a job with Hari Dilawri at his Ford dealership in Stittsville, “just beyond the fringe.” I eventually managed to scrape enough money together to buy my first dealership, MacKenzie Mercury in Ottawa’s west end. Today, that dealership is now Lincoln Heights Ford Lincoln and operated by Les Bell, one of my early employees at the dealership.

How did you develop your famous “business instincts”?

Well, I think instincts are developed over time and by trying things. After more than 65 years in business, I have had plenty of time to hone my instincts. Early on, some of my instincts may not have been the best and sometimes that means you may fail at something. But with time, perseverance and a continual drive to learn and get better, I think you develop better instincts. Experience, trust in yourself and your decisions also help improve your business instincts over time.

What has been the biggest lesson you’ve learned?

Over the years I have learned a lot of lessons. In business, you learn both from making mistakes and from times you are successful. But business in general is about people connecting with other people and working together. So, I have a couple of sayings that I think have guided how I approach business and relationships. The first is “treat people the way you want to be treated.” I like to get to know everyone in my businesses, from the managers to the cleaners, as they all play an important role. The second is “you cannot enrich yourself unless you have enriched others.” My success is in part because of other people, so I enjoy having them participate in the rewards.

What has been your role within your community during your career?

I would say for the most part I have avoided being overly visible from a community standpoint. I enjoy supporting causes that have a connection to me such as Loaves and Fishes, the Ottawa Hospital and the Ottawa Heart Institute, to name just a few. Our companies employ many people and I get great satisfaction knowing we are benefiting their families as well. And I also try to help people that may have a certain need that I learn of. As an example, I think I have paid for braces for over 15 people that were not my family members. I enjoy helping people in different ways like this when I can.

What does the future hold for you and your career?

Well, I am 85 so I try to make the most of every day. I still enjoy coming in the office every day and I enjoy making deals and finding ways to help grow our businesses. I have a great family with five children, 12 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren that keep me busy. I also have two beautiful standard poodle dogs, Harri and Jim, that I enjoy immensely. Away from work, I still enjoy boating, which has been one on my lifelong passions.

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