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Roger Phillips, president of Ipsco, in 1984: a corporate executive deeply invested in social issues. (The Globe and Mail)
Roger Phillips, president of Ipsco, in 1984: a corporate executive deeply invested in social issues. (The Globe and Mail)

OBITUARY

Roger Phillips, 73, made Ipsco into an international powerhouse Add to ...

When he was a cabinet minister, and then premier in Saskatchewan, Roy Romanow would often collide with the most prominent industrialist in the province, the chief executive officer of the big Regina steel company, Ipsco Inc.

The CEO, Roger Phillips, was an argumentative, sometimes abrasive character who could get under the skin of the New Democratic Party premier. “There were days when I left those meetings vowing never to meet with him again,” said Mr. Romanow, premier from 1991 to 2001.

But he would continue to meet – and he would seek out Mr. Phillips’s thoughts because he knew that the CEO was not only the manager who saved and built Ipsco into a North American steel powerhouse, but a passionate Canadian and public-policy enthusiast who grasped the big picture.

The two men – the free marketer and the social democrat – developed a bond that continued after both retired. Mr. Romanow loved “the spice of conversation” with Mr. Phillips, and he knew it would usually be about ideas, and it was never personal. “He knew how to conduct business, but he also knew the business operated in a society that had other concerns. He understood the crashing waves that would impact Ipsco.”

Mr. Phillips, who retired from Ipsco in 2002, died at 73 on Jan. 30 of metastatic cancer of the liver, a disease he researched and fought with the same intensity with which he built Ipsco into what was, for a time, the most valuable Canadian steel company, overshadowing more established Eastern Canadian counterparts. The company was sold five years after Mr. Phillips retired and the Regina unit is now part of the Russian steel giant Evraz.

Mr. Phillips was never a narrow corporate bureaucrat, but waded into the great debates of his time, in defence of national unity, and in pursuit of North American free trade, which he felt Canada had to embrace in order to thrive. He knew this country well, having been born in Ottawa, spent his boyhood in rural Quebec, gone to university in Montreal, and worked two decades with aluminum giant Alcan before shifting to the Prairies to take command of Ipsco.

Unlike many executives transplanted to Saskatchewan, on retirement he did not hightail it to some warm clime or coastal retreat, but stayed in Regina, although his and his wife Ann’s love of sailing would sometimes take them out of the country.

Mr. Phillips’s boyhood was spent largely in Arvida, Que., the aluminum company town in the Saguenay region. The word Arvida is a contraction of Arthur Vining Davis, president of U.S. aluminum giant Alcoa, who founded the town as a model industrial community. But Alcoa, under U.S. anti-trust pressure, spun off its Canadian interests in the late 1920s, and Roger’s father came to Arvida as a research physicist for what had become Alcan.

Arvida, with its coterie of engineers, managers and their families, was a hothouse for Canadian talent, turning out bankers and professionals who made great careers elsewhere. Among them were the Eberts brothers – Jake, an engineer who became a Hollywood producer, and Gordon, a prominent Bay Street investment banker. Gordon Eberts said the relative isolation of Arvida was a spur to success: “There was an encouragement to get the hell out.”

The Eberts’ boyhood friend Roger Phillips took his love of science to McGill University for a degree in physics and math, but he was no science nerd. He worked at the campus newspaper, the McGill Daily, and was editor-in-chief in 1959-60. He later recalled resisting attempts by the student council and university administration to influence editorial direction.

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.

He was a mentor to David Sutherland, who rose to key operating jobs and became Mr. Phillips’ successor as Ipsco CEO. “He did not suffer fools very well,” and was very demanding, Mr. Sutherland says. Someone like Mr. Phillips does not accomplish what he did “without a lot of confidence and a large ego, but very little of what he did was for Roger. It was for the company, the community, the city, the country.”

“When I’ve got a point that needs badgering, like the Bank of Canada’s monetary policy, I’ll be out there badgering,” Mr. Phillips once said. “But I don’t go around acting aggressive just for the hell of it.”

His retirement in 2002 was a surprise to many, but he had earlier signalled his intent. He did not believe that a former CEO should sit on the company’s board and hover over the new leader.

In the big steel consolidation of the past decade, the competitive strengths Mr. Phillips had ingrained in Ipsco made it a takeover target. In 2007, a Swedish company bought it for almost $8-billion, and a year later sold chunks of the operations to two Russian firms. Mr. MacKay says the sale was bittersweet for anyone involved with the company, but “you do the right thing for shareholders.”

Mr. Phillips settled into a busy retired life, as he pursued genealogy, and sailed in places like Last Mountain Lake, a 95-kilometre-long finger of water north of Regina. Mrs. Phillips has been a force in the local arts community, often using her legal training to help arts agencies organize their affairs.

Mr. Phillips continued his interest in public affairs and in 2006 donated $1-million to create the C.D. Howe Institute’s first endowed chair, the Roger Phillips Scholar in Social Policy.

Mike Percy, then dean of the University of Alberta business school, would look forward to Mr. Phillips’ visits as one of the school’s executives in residence. In his talks with students, he would refreshingly slice through management-speak to offer real-life instruction on everything from strategy to labour relations. “There was not a lot of bafflegab,” says Mr. Percy, now a U of A professor.

Six years ago, he was diagnosed with cancer in the eye; by 2011, it had spread to the liver. In his quest for answers, he had discovered that his boyhood friend, Johnny Eberts, now known as Jake and a film-finance guru with such credits as Chariots of Fire and Driving Miss Daisy, was afflicted with the same cancer and was consulting internationally with some of the same specialists. The two kids from Arvida were reunited in their common search. When Mr. Eberts died last November, the Phillipses attended his memorial service in Montreal

Mr. Phillips continued to serve as director of some major companies, including Canadian Pacific, where, as part of the established board, he became embroiled in the bitter proxy battle with a U.S. activist shareholder. Friends say he was fully engaged in the contentious debate, which led to a turnover of the board and Mr. Phillips’ departure last year.

Besides Ann, he is survived by Andree, a physician in the U.S. Northeast, Andree’s husband, also a doctor, and their two children, as well as two sisters.

Ann Philips says her husband had an outstanding life that was fully, enthusiastically lived. No one would have an argument with that.

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