Edwin Phillips: Prominent businessman also active in Christian ministry

Ed Phillips has been a leader in both the business and Christian communities.

Ed Phillips has been a leader in both the business and Christian communities.

This profile is from the Faith in Canada 150 Thread of 1000 Stories. Faith in Canada 150 exists to celebrate the role of faith in our life together during Canada’s anniversary celebrations in 2017.

Edwin Charles Phillips is quick to make the point that his parents laid good foundations for him.

Phillips was born in Saskatoon on October 19, 1917, into a pastor’s home to Charles Henry and Beatrice (Johnson) Phillips. His father was later minister of the prestigious Monroe Street Christian Church in the East Hollywood area of Los Angeles. During his formative years, young Edwin was increasingly attracted to the business world – and a life of faith. And his location within the Hollywood orb led to crowd bit parts – with payment in free popcorn – in such biblical epic films as King of Kings and Ben Hur.

On the business side, he earned some tidy sums selling Los Angeles Times newspapers outside the original Warner Brothers movie studios.

Later, the Phillips family moved to Canada, where his father served churches on the prairies and in Toronto. In 1937, after a bit of post-high school casting about, he bargained a cattle-train ride from Vancouver to Toronto, having enrolled in the University of Toronto. His “fare-in-kind” was the feeding and watering of a carload of cattle at stops along the way.

Soon upon arrival, he took up an assistant buyer’s job with Loblaw’s, the large grocery chain, advancing his career into the marketing field. (While he chose business over a university education at that time, he later took mid-career advance management studies through a Harvard Business School-taught program at University of Western Ontario.)

Phillips speaks warmly of his parents’ influence on both his faith and what became his sense of ethical propriety.

In an April, 1983 article in Decision Magazine (published by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, he noted:

The fact that I was a “preacher’s kid” had a great influence on me. Christian education was a part of our existence; it seemed totally natural. I was impressed by the way my parents and Sunday school teachers lived. Our parents trusted us and encouraged us to live full lives with lots of action in athletics of all kinds.

My Sunday school teachers influenced me because they were athletes as well as devoted Christians – students, as it happened at a California Bible College. I wanted the kind of faith that motivated them. As a teenager, I came to understand what salvation was all about, accepted Christ without hesitation, was baptized on Easter Sunday in 1928.

[Later,] I studied the Scriptures on my own with the aid of material like Halley’s Bible Handbook, a concordance and sometimes a Bible dictionary or commentary. I used the same approach in studying the Bible as I used in business. I tried to write down the pros and cons and weigh the balance. I found real logic in the Scriptures; I had to acknowledge there was a master hand putting it all together.

Paul’s writings are a strong source of strength to me. Besides meeting Christ himself, I look forward to one day meeting Paul. The skill and intellect demonstrated in his writings and the way in which the Holy Spirit used him have left a strong impression on me.

During his time at Loblaw’s, in Toronto, Phillips met Elizabeth (Betty) Winnifred Johnston. She was employed in payroll. One evening, they were both working overtime.

In the aforementioned Decision Magazine article, he noted:

I offered to take her out for a great meal which cost me 75 cents. That started it. Betty and I built a home. Our early Bible studies together laid some excellent foundations for Christian living.

The couple married on June 27, 1942. They had six children, Diane (Judd), Carol (McClelland), Glen, Earl, Jane (McGrath) and Sue.

(Betty passed away September 4, 2002. Phillips married Marg Ballard, a widow and long-time family friend on June 7, 2004).

Phillips worked with Loblaw’s until 1942, when he did World War II service as a flying instructor with the Royal Canadian Air Force. Upon discharge in 1945, he became advertising manager for Canada and Dominion Sugar, in Chatham, Ontario.

Describing his early years in business, Phillips continued:

After wartime service in the Canadian Air Force, I began my stint in the energy business with Consumers’ Gas Company in Toronto – Canada’s largest gas distribution utility. As assistant to the general manager, I worked on a feasibility study for introducing natural gas into eastern Canada. That study laid some of the groundwork for what became, several years later, Trans Canada Pipelines.

His move into the gas industry occurred in 1947 – not in the pipeline sector, as would later become his forte, but in the marketing end, with Consumers Gas Company, in Toronto, as assistant to the general manager. In 1952, he moved to Trane Company of Canada Limited, the heating and air conditioning conglomerate. For the next 16 years, he held increasingly responsible positions at Trane – as assistant general manager, vice-president, vice president and general manager, executive vice-president and president/chief executive officer. In 1954, he was named to the company’s board of directors.

It was in 1967, as he approached age 50, that Phillips actually moved into the hurly-burly of the natural gas pipeline business. As he approached age 50, he wanted to check out the possibility of working with the man who he described as “my energy hero,” the Westcoast Transmission Company Limited founder, Frank McMahon.

Phillips sought out a meeting in Vancouver with Frank McMahon, the legendary and visionary western Canadian oil and gas pipeline developer. He was following what had been his practice through the years, learning all he could from excellent executives on the way to assuming greater responsibilities himself.

McMahon was a horse breeder of note. (His Majestic Prince fell short of a Triple Crown by just yards, in 1969.) Phillips, for his part, had raised horses in Ontario. So, the first couple of hours of their session consisted mostly of horse talk. But soon, McMahon waxed eloquent. Phillips recalls that the gist of the “wild-catter’s” vision-casting went as follows: “I am going to build two pipelines from the north slope of Alaska right down Canada into the United States, one for gas and, in the same right-of-way, one for oil. We are going to need lots of help if we do it; would that be of interest to you?”

McMahon liked what he saw in Phillips and shoe-horned him into the company’s executive suite, where his immediate superiors told him that, while their founder had great visions for natural gas transmission, the company’s long term survival really needed some careful analysis, diplomatic leadership and prudent stewardship. The first questions his new “bosses” asked were whether he was an engineer, a lawyer or an accountant. His reply: a generalist. That filled the bill nicely.

Between 1968 and 1989, Phillips was, successively, vice president, president, CEO and board chair – and, finally – emeritus status at Westcoast (later Westcoast Energy and now Spectra Energy.) It was and remains involved in shipping natural gas by pipeline from northern Canada to the US-Canada border in southwestern British Columbia.

The story of those years has been well-told in Phillips own words and those of Peter C. Newman, the renowned sometime editor of Maclean’s Magazine and chronicler of the Canadian business and political establishment. Both are listed in the bibliography below.

Aptly titled Guts and Guile: True Tales from the Backrooms of the Pipeline Industry, Phillips’ account of his Westcoast Transmission years portrays the complexities of an industry pioneered by “wildcatters” like McMahon and developed by others who, at various times were resource-moving process managers and negotiators.

There were always, during his tenure, two goals. One involved getting pipelines built and into operation, based on availability of the natural gas, the location of the users of said resource and moving of the resource between the two. The other involved building political, corporate and personal relationships with the people with whom Westcoast was dealing.

Phillips made it his business to keep a respectful and careful listening ear which recognized that in any corporate structure, there were various forces at work to see that the interests of workers, shareholders, partners and managers were all kept in balance. He was noted for spending much time in the field, often with his wife, Betty, to build listening, motivating and, sometimes, personal relationships with managers and employees at production, transmission and delivery sites.

While he could frequently propose innovative solutions and systems for specific challenges, he needed to work with those vision-casters who wanted to exploit new resources and find new customers. Through the years, that involved partnerships with oil pipeline companies and negotiating with regulators and politicians on civic, provincial and federal levels.

One departure from these challenging negotiating and government-lobbying exercises came in mid-1976 when Phillips received a mysterious phone call during a pipeline business trip to Montreal.

On the other end of the phone line was . . .

. . . a man with a slightly nervous and agitated voice. He ordered me to return to Vancouver immediately, to receive a message recorded on tape explaining how I could save my own life and avoid the Westcoast pipeline or one of its compressor stations being blown up. Just like in the movies, he warned that his plan would be put into immediate action if I went to the police and demanded that Westcoast pay him $1 million. (Phillips, 84)

The tape-recording had arrived in Vancouver, wrapped in a $100 bill, ostensibly intended to pay for the phone calls charged to Westcoast which formed part of the $1 million demand. The tape, as it turned out, was a “long diatribe about big business not doing enough to combat drugs and the $1 million payout would be directed toward the caller’s personal campaign against drug abuse.”

What followed was a trip by Phillips to Prince George (close to many of Westcoast’s pipeline and compressor operations) to meet with someone eventually nicknamed “the Thug” – i.e. the villain enforced by the unknown gangster and phone caller from Toronto.)

Phillips recounts the Prince George sessions in some detail (84-88). Once the encounter played out, the RCMP reported back thusly:

The police explained that they knew the Thug very well. He was a crook who ran the serious gambling in the area and his joint was a focal point of drugs. They were not anxious to put him in jail because surveillance of his moves gave them a lot of information about the arrival of narcotics and other local criminal activities. The wild part of the story is that he had gone to the local Mounties for protection from me. He told them he was meeting a hit-man from the Vancouver mob, so the police assured him they would protect him in the bar by having one Mountie act as a waiter and another as the bartender. (88)

On the broader and probably more significant level, Phillips found his negotiating and leadership skills variously taxed during the BC premierships of the NDP’s Dave Barrett (1972-75) and his Social Credit successor, the late Bill Bennett (1975-86).

Considering the potential animosity between an avowedly socialist regime and a regulated but privately owned utility, Phillips was able to manage Westcoast in a way that resulted in fairly smooth relations between the provincial government and the transmission company.

Phillips put it as follows:

The government in power in 1973 was Dave Barrett’s NDP. As a prelude to the record of this era, a remarkable paradox must be explained. Quite emphatically, it was the switch from a Social Credit government to the NDP that later made the most positive alteration to Westcoast’s future. For historical accuracy, it must be acknowledged that Westcoast accomplished under a socialist administration what we could not do under the free-enterprise government. (42)

After recounting the intricacies of the NDP’s relationship to Westcoast, Phillips noted:

Effectively, our enterprising socialist premier had callously knocked down Westcoast common-share price from $30 to $18 with his takeover talk then jumped in to buy as it was rising to $22. [Barrett] took every opportunity to boast how he had increased the gas price to the Americans and then used their own money to buy back the only US ownership in the BC big-inch pipeline monopoly. (54)

Phillips reported that he talked to Barrett after the transaction, to determine if the premier would want to name a government representative to Westcoast’s board. Barrett’s reply: “We wouldn’t go on the board if you asked us. Just don’t let the stock go down and make me look bad.” (54)

When the Social Credit resumed power in 1975, Westcoast had to readjust to a seemingly more market-oriented approach to governance. For the most part, Phillips was able to manage the adjustment from the company’s end. One sticky point, however, involved Westcoast’s proposal to make natural gas available to Vancouver Island by running a pipeline across the Georgia Strait (now Salish Sea) between Powell River and Comox. (Premier Bill Bennett preferred an arguably more environmentally risky embarkation point from the Fraser River delta, some 200 kilometres south of Powell River.)

In fact, it was not until 1990, when Phillips was penning Guts and Guile, that work on the pipeline was underway – following the route that Westcoast had so long advocated.

In the years since Phillips retired from Westcoast’s leadership, the company has restructured considerably through several transitions. Today, it is part of Spectra Energy, headquartered in Houston, Texas. Its Vancouver corporate office moved a few blocks east of the iconic Westcoast tower, which has been converted to high end condominiums overlooking Stanley Park.

From Decision (Billy Graham) April, 1983.

In exploring the leadership traits and styles exhibited by Phillips, we will approach the subject from three perspectives; the numerous boards – both corporate and faith-based – on which Phillips served. It includes Peter C. Newman’s examination of his corporate style and the roles in which Phillips served in faith-based activities.

In Continental Reach: The Westcoast Energy Story (2002) Newman notes:

It is remarkable that Ed Phillips so dominates the story of Westcoast’s middle years between its troubled adolescence and its years as a flourishing continental powerhouse. During the ten years he served as president, then CEO and finally chair of the board, he always had a powerful overseeing shareholder: first Phillips Petroleum, which spoke through Kelly Gibson, then Petro-Canada and its powerful chair and ECEO Bill Hopper. Another man would have stood in the shadows. Ed Phillips learned to lead his leaders. (Newman, 108)

Newman led up to that assessment in considerable detail. Here are two quotes from Continental Reach chapters, respectively entitled “The Great Conciliator” and “The Conciliator’s Brand”:

Phillips’ soothing style based on patience and tact, his rapport with all ranks of the company and his external political skills were, as much as his talent for corporate organization and money management, the qualities that elevated him to be Kelly Gibson’s successor. (95)

Kelly Gibson once accused Phillips of trying to pacify those above and below him and told him it was his fatal weakness. [Others], however, from the Vancouver “blueblood” directors to the lowliest field hand in Fort Nelson – all of whom Phillips knew by their first names – understood that the boss valued their work . . . Phillips’ way with people was uncanny. More than a talent, it was a leader’s gift. It made him the moral centre of the company, as well as its titular leader, and natural successor to the founding father. (106)

Successful corporate leaders often become members of the boards of directors of corporations, in the interests of ensuring good lines of communication among diversified organizations doing business with each other. Phillips was no exception. He was at various times a member of the board of directors of 34 different corporations.

The best known (with positions he held in brackets) included such as: Barclay’s Bank, Belkin (where he was vice president), DynCorp (USA), Canada Trust, Emco (where he served for 22 years), MacMillan Bloedel Ltd. (where he was on the executive committee), Masco, Pacific Northern Gas (chair), Westar Group (chair), Trane Company of Canada (president) and Worldwide Equities Limited.

It is in the listing of association memberships that hints of some of Phillips’ faith-based leadership and influence emerges.

Ed Phillips was featured in Decision magazine, published by the Billy Graham organization.

Ed Phillips was profiled (by Lloyd Mackey) in Decision magazine, published by the Billy Graham organization.

The pastor’s home in which he was raised placed him within a “Restorationist” movement of churches variously described as Disciples of Christ, Christian and Churches of Christ. Generally independent in nature, these churches have a polity that emphasizes a congregation’s control over its own affairs. In addition to congregational autonomy, the movement laid heavy emphasis on the strong roles of lay people in both the spiritual and temporal leadership in a local church. (Two of the best known contemporary figures related to the movement are singer Pat Boone and novelist Max Lucado.)

Phillips’ father was a leader in the movement, both in the United States and Canada. After pastoring several churches, he founded (in 1932 and 1950, respectively) and served as president of Alberta Bible College in Calgary and Puget Sound College of the Bible in the Seattle area. (Before closing in 2007, it had been renamed Puget Sound Christian College.)

Phillips became imbued with the congregational concepts that shaped that movement and, during his early years, was a lay leader in what became Westway Christian Church in the western suburbs of Toronto. He was chair of the elders’ board. He and his fellow leaders built a foundation that led to another church plant in Mississauga. It became one of the largest in Canada of its particular Christian branding, with over 1,000 congregants worshipping at several sites.

When the Phillips’ moved to Vancouver, for him to become part of Westcoast Transmission, they intended to become part of a Disciples of Christ (Christian) congregation, a rather more liberal manifestation of the movement. The first Sunday they attended, church leaders announced the Disciples’ plan to affiliate with the United Church. That resulted in the disbanding of its Vancouver church and the scattering of its members to other congregations. The church building was sold and the property redeveloped. Today, it is the site of a large hotel, across the street from Vancouver’s City Hall.

Following the closing of that church, Ed and Betty became a part of West Point Grey Baptist Church, in their neighbourhood and Ed became a part of several Christian groups that enabled him to exercise spiritual leadership and relationship roles. He was on the board of Regent College, an evangelical theological graduate school affiliated with the University of British Columbia.

Phillips also became part of a weekly downtown Vancouver prayer breakfast group whose major annual project was the staging of the BC Leadership Prayer Breakfast, held in the Bayshore Inn, just a stone’s throw from the Westcoast headquarters. And he served several years on the board of Christian Info Society, which published the long-running BC Christian News newspaper.

Both the prayer breakfast and newspaper activity allowed him, on one hand, to subtly interest his business compatriots in spiritual values and, on the other, to help the organizations of which he was a part to maintain high standards in business practices and ethics. (It was his associations with these groups as well that helped make him a subject of the aforementioned Decision magazine article. It came at a time when evangelist Billy Graham led an eight-day evangelism mission in 1984, in the newly-built BC Place stadium.)

During his tenth decade, Phillips has maintained a keen interest in both business matters and his faith-based connections, from a seniors residence on Vancouver’s west side. On the business side, he has kept close watch on the development – and delays – in the liquefied natural gas (LNG) transport and export industry. That activity was very much in its infancy when he was at Westcoast, but much of the work he did helped to lay the ground for what may yet happen in that industry in British Columbia.

While limited in the ability to travel without nearby medical care being available, he maintains the role of “phantom elder” of Westcoast Christian Church, a congregation of about 200 in Cloverdale, in the city of Surrey, south of the Fraser River, and 30 kilometers from the Phillips’ residence. He maintains phone and email contact with the pastor, Kurt Kuykendall – thus the self-effacing “phantom” reference.

He and Marg do observe one of the movement’s traditions unfailingly, however. Each Sunday morning, they celebrate the Lord’s Supper (communion) together quietly in their suite – thus maintaining the spiritual link with their brothers and sisters worldwide – despite their own limited mobility.

1. Broadbent, E.H., 1931, 2002. The Pilgrim Church. Grand Rapids, MI, Gospel Folio Press.
2. Newman, Peter C., 2002. Continental Reach: The Westcoast Energy Story. Vancouver, Douglas & McIntyre.
3. Phillips, Ed, 1990. Guts and Guile: True Tales from the Backrooms of the Pipeline Industry. Vancouver/Toronto; Douglas & McIntyre.
4. Phillips, Ed as told to Lloyd Mackey. Decision Magazine. Minneapolis, April, 1983.
5. Phillips, Charles Henry, 1957. History of the Church. Seattle, Unpublished.
6. Unbylined cover story, “Westcoast Transmission’s Ed Phillips: Stalled by deadlock in B.C./U.S. Talks.” B.C. Business, August, 1980 17-22.
7. Unbylined and unpublished. “Minutes, March 26, 1957” reporting on the inaugural meeting and related documents in the establishment of Westway Christian Church, Etobicoke, Ontario. (The meeting took place in the Phillips home.)

Lloyd and Edna Mackey. Photo by Francis Lo.

Lloyd and Edna Mackey. Photo by Francis Lo.

Dr. Lloyd Mackey has close to half a century of experience in community, faith-based and leadership journalism, including 15 years working out of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery in Ottawa. Books he has authored include These Evangelical Churches of OursLike Father, Like Son: Ernest Manning and Preston Manning, More Faithful Than We Think: Stories and Insights on Canadian Leaders, Doing Politics Christianly and The Pilgrimage of Stephen Harper. He is founding editor/director of the Online Encyclopedia of Canadian Christian Leaders, an outgrowth of his DMin studies at Tyndale University College and Seminary. He and his wife Edna live in Surrey.

This article is re-posted by permission.

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