Mr. Phillips’s passion for good writing – he would later collaborate in writing his own annual reports – and lively discourse flourished at the Daily. As editor-in-chief, he would wander over to the reporters’ desks to debate such contentious issues as religion, and he caught the eye of one of the student journalists, Ann Wilson from Hudson, Que. A group of McGill journalists attended the Canadian University Press’s national conference in Quebec City, where Mr. Phillips rubbed shoulders with his counterparts, such as Ed Roberts, the Newfoundlander who headed the University of Toronto’s Varsity, and Joe Clark, editor of the University of Alberta’s Gateway and a future prime minister. Ann Wilson was impressed with her young colleague; The two became close and married in 1962.
They had a daughter, Andree, after whose birth Ann pursued a law degree. Meanwhile, Roger joined his father’s old employer, Alcan, where he spent 22 years, rising to vice-president and chief technical officer and head of its international arm. But he wanted to run a company, and that wouldn’t happen soon at Alcan.
“I was in my 40s and there was one generation between me and top management, so I was looking at 10 more years of roughly the same sorts of responsibilities,” Mr. Phillips told Globe and Mail reporter John Partridge in 1986.
Opportunity came calling in the form of Ipsco, the former Interprovincial Steel Corp., an improbable Western manufacturing success story. It had started life as Prairie Pipe, established by an NDP government to take advantage of the oil and gas boom and the pressing need for steel pipelines. It had thrived under hard-charging, hard-drinking Jack Turvey, an entrepreneurial force of nature driven by enmity toward the “Eastern trust” of old steel companies.
Mr. Turvey had retired by the time Mr. Phillips arrived in 1982, but they were both in the larger-than-life mould. “Anyone who can stay in the ring with Jack Turvey and Roger Phillips cannot be discounted,” says Regina lawyer Harold MacKay, who worked for or with both, as an Ipsco executive and later director.
Mr. Phillips’ timing was terrible, arriving just as the National Energy Program and a harsh recession clobbered the energy and pipeline industry, and many of Ipsco’s customers. “In the first week I was here, we had our first layoff in about eight years – and I abolished the long-term planning committee,” Mr. Phillips once said. “We had to go back to working on the short term.”
When he came up for air, Mr. Phillips knew Ipsco had to change and he aggressively pursued productivity gains. He switched the production model from making ingots to continuous casting, by which molten metal is solidified into a slab of flat steel. Much more than a pipe company, it emerged as a steel producer with a niche in thick steel, and with scrap metal as its major raw material.
And he took the dramatic step of aggressively going after the U.S. market, setting up modern mills in places like Mobile, Ala., and Montpelier, Iowa. Published reports have indicated that over his 20 years of leadership, IPSCO’s steel production capacity increased nearly fivefold – to 3.5 million tons a year.
Ipsco became in reality a North American producer, with much of its invested capital and production in the United States. Mr. Phillips in 1999 established an operational hub in a suburb of Chicago, but he kept the head office in Regina, and continued to live there, while travelling back and forth. Combined with his roles in steel institutes and public-affairs forums, and as a lifelong student of physics, it seemed to colleagues he was always on the phone from somewhere.
Tom Kierans, a former investment banker and another public policy enthusiast, became Ipsco’s chairman in 1993, and Mr. Phillips took him on an extensive tour of North American facilities. Mr. Kierans got to meet dozens of people throughout the ranks, all of whom Mr. Phillips knew by name.