One day, during the busy summer season, Ian Powell was summoned to the front desk where a very surly customer was complaining that he didn't get a room with a view in the Arthur Erickson-designed wing of Victoria's Inn at Laurel Point.
When Mr. Powell, managing director of the posh Inn, appeared wearing a clerical collar, the guest switched from sinner to saint. Mr. Powell is not only a hotel manager, he's also an Anglican priest.
"I earn my daily bread by being a hotelier. I feed my soul by being a priest," says Mr. Powell, 60, who since 2006 has been the Inn's manager and who has served at Victoria's Christ Church Cathedral since 2009.
Mr. Powell doesn't see a great chasm between his passion for the hotel business and the spiritual. Both demand a hospitable nature, he says. Accordingly, the hotelier-cum-priest has merged "altar" egos, be they work, relationships, hobbies or faith. "I came to the realization that I'm one box. I'm me." Whether he's wearing his clerical collar or suit and tie, his heavenly personality is constant. "I'm not going to be a quick-change artist," says Mr. Powell, who was honoured with Tourism Victoria's Life Member Award for 2015.
Raised in Leicestershire, England, Mr. Powell earned a degree in hotel administration from the Birmingham College of Food. In 1978, he immigrated to Winnipeg and began his stellar hotel career at some of the country's most hallowed hotels in Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver and Victoria.
In Vancouver, eldest daughter Victoria decided she wanted to attend church. Soon, she, Mr. Powell, wife Marilyn and daughter Alex were attending a downtown Anglican church. As he got immersed in parish work, he recalls that "the hole in my life got bigger. I started doing things, thinking it would close." But instead, Mr. Powell, in his 40s at the time, faced more unanswered faith questions that perplexed a man with one foot grounded in lobbies and another treading in sacristies.
In 2005, while working at the Fairmont Hamilton Princess hotel in Bermuda, he had a revelation. Helping to prepare his Anglican church for mass, the hotelier was preoccupied with financier Carl Icahn's (subsequently failed) takeover bid for the Fairmont chain. While fretting about new ownership, a voice told him, "You know what you're supposed to be doing. Just get on with it." A priest in the room at the time told the usually high-spirited Mr. Powell that he looked like he had seen a ghost.
While he hadn't before considered the priesthood, Mr. Powell interpreted the message as one telling him to take up the clerical mantle. "I loved the hotel business, but it was as if there was something else," he says. Oddly, his mother Betty, who lives in England his father, Keith, always knew her son would become a priest. After much soul-searching, discussion with his family and even a retreat at an seminary near Boston, he recognized the call and began religious studies in 2008. "I was being taken along by the Holy Spirit," he recalls.
Fortunately, his employer has accommodated his passion. The Inn is an independent hotel that's operated as a trust, with profits returned to hotel operations or local causes. The three trustees supported Mr. Powell's faith journey, going so far as to pay for the speciality material needed to make his priest's wardrobe (sewn by wife Marilyn).
"Can you imagine if I worked with a major hotel corporation and they saw me in a collar? They'd probably freak. There's the paranoia about keeping church and business apart. Here, we have a culture that's incredibly caring," Mr. Powell says.
Quarteritis, when cost-cutting decisions are made based returns to stockholders, aren't a factor because profits go back into the Inn. "But let's not get too soppy. We're a commercial enterprise. We conduct business as business should be done," he stresses.
Executive assistant Judy Elder has worked with the Reverend at the Inn for nine years. When he interviewed her, he said he was becoming a priest. "My eyeballs went big. It really threw me a curve. I said, 'Oh really … umm,'" Ms. Elder recalls. With nary a religious bone in her body, she imagined that she'd be working for a pious boss. But Mr. Powell operates under a "democratic dictatorship," she explains, where he listens to all sides and is willing to change his mind.
High-powered executives typically embody the "My way or the highway" philosophy and don't want to lose face in front of others. Mr. Powell breaks the mould, Ms. Elder says."Being a priest, or business leader, he's the same person. He's a lot of fun and he's reasonable. He's probably the best boss I've ever worked for." And he never pushes religion at work, she says. At the Inn, there's no hell to pay.
Victoria City councillor Chris Coleman, the son of an Anglican bishop and an active member of Christ Church Cathedral, has known the Reverend for several years. While he is the consummate hotel boss, widely-respected for his human resource and financial skills, there's a part of the "impish" manager that revels in reaching souls, says Mr. Coleman.
"It's about talking to people, whatever you're selling. He does the same thing in a world that intersects the spiritual and outside the four walls of church," Mr. Coleman adds. Using his self-deprecating, British humour, he says Mr. Powell disarms those around him – "taking the mickey out of himself," be it in church or boardroom.
A priest till he dies, Mr. Powell won't always be a hotelier. But there have been occasions where the confluence of his careers was gratifying. This past September, he led the funeral for Bill Patterson, a founder of Delta Hotels, and in 2013 the funeral for Michael Lambert, formerly Hotel Vancouver's top manager and one of Mr. Powell's mentors. "It was an absolute joy to do that service after all he'd done for me. Stuff like that makes my soul sing."