Business

The ring of life and business with Tom Pallan

Tom Pallan, CEO of the Pallan Group, stands before a load of fresh-cut hemlock at the dryland sort north of Campbell River. - Paul Rudan/The Mirror
Tom Pallan, CEO of the Pallan Group, stands before a load of fresh-cut hemlock at the dryland sort north of Campbell River.
— image credit: Paul Rudan/The Mirror

Tom Pallan isn’t sure where or when he lost the ring.

Somewhere and some time over the past 50 years, the silver ring handed out to all forestry graduates went missing.

While it wasn’t particularly valuable, it was significant. In 1958, Pallan became the first person of Indo-Canadian heritage to graduate from the Forestry program at the University of British Columbia.

He was also a double-major student, earning a second degree in engineering at the age of 25, along with an iron ring that students receive upon graduation.

Pallan still has his iron ring, but the silver ring was never found. It didn’t matter, he had his degrees and a driving ambition that would pave the way for a successful family business that has lasted half a century and counting.

“Looking back, I wouldn’t have changed a thing, even with all the difficulties,” he says, leaning back in his office chair with the Campbell River harbour view spread out behind him.

Now 78 and partially retired as the CEO of the Pallan Group, Pallan remains energetic and enthusiastic about his businesses, as well as the opportunities that lie ahead.

“We do business all over the world,” he says with arms spread as wide as his smile.

Beginning

In 1906, Tom Pallan’s grandfather emigrated from India to Canada. He landed in Victoria and went to work in a lime quarry just outside the city.

The quarry later became the world-famous Butchart Gardens. But before there were flowers, the family patriarch worked hard removing lime from the quarry for 10 cents an hour.

In the 1920s, Pallan’s parents moved from India to Canada to raise their family. He grew up speaking Punjabi and, as a result, was kept in the first grade for two years and spent another two years in Grade 2. But like his parents and grandfather before him, Pallan worked and studied hard, and eventually earned his way into UBC.

After graduating with two degrees, Pallan spent the next year at Oregon State College where he earned a Masters degree in Forestry.

In 1959, Pallan and his father purchased a forestry licence on property located about 20 kilometres north of Campbell River, and began turning timber into lumber.

Through the years and the economic highs and lows of the forestry industry, Pallan Timber company grew and prospered. Then, in 1970, Pallan, his wife Koko and their three boys moved to Campbell River.

The seaside town became their home where their children and business continued to grow.

Diversifying

Change is inevitable, says Tom Pallan, and must be embraced and understood for a business to survive, especially in the forestry industry.

He can’t count how many forestry businesses he’s seen “come and go,” and firmly believes that diversification is the reason the Pallan Group of companies survives and thrives.

For example, he says, companies which solely relied on the huge U.S. market to sell their timber and lumber products, were hammered by the Softwood Lumber Agreement and the crash in new home building.

America, Pallan readily acknowledges, is a valuable market, but so are places like Japan, China and India which want B.C. logs and lumber.

“There are 300 million middle class in China. It’s the same with India. They all want homes and they all want a better standard of living,” he says.

The Pallan Group is based in Campbell River and has satellite sales offices for timber and lumber in Japan and China. Pallan himself recently returned from a lumber trade mission to India.

He was invited by Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts – due the Pallans’ business dealings in the Lower Mainland city – and spent six busy days visiting with potential new customers.

“We’re already getting inquiries, but we’ll see if they turn into real business,” says Pallan, who readily enjoys the personal interaction. “If they don’t know who you are, how are they going to do business with you?”

As for diversification, the Pallan Group is an “umbrella” for three company divisions: forestry through Pallan Timber; custom lumber cutting through Howe Sound Forest Products; and real estate through Pallan Holdings. The latter includes the 100-acre Forest Grove Properties residential subdivision and the commercial block in Campbellton between Willow and Tamarac streets which includes the Fountain Tire building.

“That’s where our new office is going to be,” says Pallan, pointing to the empty lot beside Fountain Tire, as he drives by in his Porche SUV.

The True Ring

It’s hard to believe Tom Pallan is nearly 79 years old or is slowing down. His voice rings with youthful enthusiasm and there’s still a spring in his brisk step. And it’s nearly impossible not to be charmed by his wit, charisma and breadth of knowledge.

But now, he admits, he spends half the week in the office and allows his sons, Rauvi and Derik, to manage business along with a dedicated core of employees.

Pallan has become the quintessential family patriarch and his wisdom is rooted in the generations that came before him. Family, education and community provide the other cornerstones that form the foundation of his life.

“What’s important to me is, I’ve had a good life and I want to give back and support my community, which we do,” he says.

The Pallan family has provided significant financial donations to the Campbell River Hospital Foundation, the Community Foundation and the museum. And each year they provide four scholarships to new students at North Island College in memory of their son Michael who died in 1996.

Pallan is also a proud grandfather as he points to the photos of his two granddaughters on the ring of family photos that surrounds his office. Both are fluent in French and both are studying math and physics at major colleges in the U.S.

As well, today is a special day for him and Koko as they celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.

“We’re very fortunate,” he says.

And Tom Pallan is also sporting a new ring. In March he was invited by the UBC Forestry Dean, John Innes, to attend a ceremony where he was presented with a new silver ring along with 84 graduating students.

It was a memorable moment in a remarkable life which Pallan thoroughly cherishes.

“You know, we’re not a big country, but this is a great country,” he says, as he catches himself in a moment of reflection and quickly quips, “Now don’t be writing any of that flowery stuff!”

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