He’s built up a $500-million-a-year business from nothing, and now the millionaire behind Jim’s Mowing has revealed how he overcame his own “weaknesses and failures” to create one of Australia’s largest franchise chains – and why he never plans to retire.
From firing his own sister to overcoming three broken marriages, Jim Penman, 66, has had a turbulent personal life while developing his famous business. But while he’s successfully built up an incredible legacy, he’s insisted in an exclusive chat with Starts at 60 that he never wants to give up his work.
“I never intend to retire, I can’t imagine it,” he said. “Let me just say, being a paraplegic is obviously a terrible thing – it really is – I can understand all the negatives about it, but if someone gave me the choice to either retire completely on a huge income, millions of dollars a year and never work again in my life, or become a paraplegic – I’d rather be a paraplegic.
“It would be horrifying to me to retire. I wouldn’t like it and it would be a terrible waste.”
Jim first set up his business to help fund his biggest passion in life, biohistory. According to a website about this area of study, biohistory looks at the biological imperatives in politics and in the families of monarchies that play a huge role in predicting the rise and fall of society. Essentially, it looks at how the biological characteristics of individual people have altered and shaped history.
His vision is to better understand how and what makes society work, in the hopes of eradicating social issues such as crime, and it’s a vision he doesn’t plan to give up in the near future.
He’s now releasing a biography about his life and business success, Jim’s Book, which has been written by Catherine Moolenschot and published by Wiley. Among many things, it shows that you can be successful despite personal flaws.
“I just thought it would help people to see that someone who’s very flawed and has many weaknesses and failures can still do alright,” he explained.
Revealing his own weaknesses, Jim said: “I’ve got terrible personal skills. If you’ve looked at the book, I’ve offended people and some of the stuff makes me cringe when I think about it. I say the wrong things, I can’t do small talk, I don’t have those social skills – I’ve always been an extreme introvert.
“On top of that I’m impulsive and make stupid decisions very often without thinking about them … People think because you’re successful you don’t do anything wrong. But also I’m actually incredibly lazy, I don’t find it easy to work. I’m not a natural worker.”
Jim is described by past workers in his book as being fairly strong-minded and tough when it comes to his work, and one example came years ago when he fired his own sister sparking a bitter estrangement that is still continuing now.
“People find that very hard,” he admitted. “She’s a very bright woman and she’d probably do very well at other jobs.”
However, he explained: “She just couldn’t work out. All the staff members around her noticed that she was no good – she couldn’t do it. The trouble is, I have an obligation to my franchisees which is very strong, and if you put someone in a job that doesn’t deserve it, it demoralises every other staff member who’s working hard. And I have great staff.
“They look at it and think, ‘Here’s someone that doesn’t work effectively, but because she’s Jim’s sister she gets to keep her job’. It’s the same with my kids. They’ve all worked in the business at some point, but I say to them, ‘You keep it on your own merits’.”
Asked if he’s still in touch with his sister now, Jim said: “No, she still doesn’t speak to me. Last time I saw her was at a wedding and she almost spat in my face. I went up to say hello to her – I think you should always try to reconcile – but she doesn’t want to.”
Jim has another sister and brother. Unfortunately he’s not in touch with his brother, who he says doesn’t wish to be in touch, but he gets on well with his other sister.
His issues with communication and personal skills have impacted Jim’s personal life even further in the past, and he’s been through three marriage breakdowns before finally finding happiness with his current wife – who he’s been with for 18 years.
The businessman, who has 11 children from these relationships, said: “I’ve got three failed marriages, which doesn’t say a lot for anybody. However, my wife and I will have been married for 18 years shortly and we’re madly in love.”
Asked if his dedication to his business may have impacted his past marriages, Jim added: “You need a certain kind of person to cope with you. A lot of it is the personal skills, I’m not very good at reading people’s feelings. I remember when my third wife wanted to break up and end the marriage I was so shocked, I just didn’t know. I was just startled, I tried to persuade her to change her mind but just couldn’t. She’d had enough.”
Speaking of his current wife, Jim added: “She’s a very capable business woman in her own right, but I often say that one thing she could do better than anyone else is teach women how to be a perfect wife!
“She’s just a great person who gives first, she has this enormous sense of obligation, looking after me and her family, and anyone she’s associated with. She gives so much and so warmly, that you just have to give back. I have to pull her away from the sink or she’ll just get up and start washing up!”
Jim is particularly passionate about being a father, and said he’d ideally have another child every couple of years for the rest of his life if he could – describing himself as “kid crazy”.
However, asked if he’s close with all of his children now, Jim said: “Well not all of them, I have contact with most of them.”
Jim’s Book is available in bookstores nationwide now. To buy a copy online, visit the website here.