When Jim Phillips arrived in El Paso in 1969 to take over the radio station he'd just purchased, he brought a solid broadcasting experience, a thick Texas accent and boundless enthusiasm.
While his success in radio and later banking was nothing short of spectacular, it may surprise you to know that has little to do with why Phillips has been selected as El Paso Inc.’s El Pasoan of the Year for 2010.
Rather, Phillips is being honored for his work on behalf of just about every major not-for-profit in El Paso over the last 40 years. His résumé literally lists dozens of not-for-profits he has championed, most in leadership roles. The words “president” and “chairman” appear 21 times on his résumé.
But his greatest single contribution is his ability to bring enormous reserves of energy to bear on whatever project he takes on, encouraging and motivating others to do more and be more than they thought they could.
In that respect, Phillips personifies the purpose of our El Pasoan of the Year project: to serve as inspiration and encouragement for others.
Phillips also is being honored for the role he has played in mentoring and encouraging so many of El Paso’s most successful people.
In our quest for this year’s El Pasoan of the Year, Phillips received more nominations than any other candidate, including from our blue chip group of previous honorees. He was even nominated by other 2010 nominees.
Now 78 and battling Parkinson’s, Phillips doesn’t move as quickly as he once did. He uses a wheelchair and sometimes it is hard to understand him. Yet he is as sharp and concerned about others as ever. He refuses to blow off his civic and charitable commitments. He attends board meetings and made all the holiday parties. He still turns out for UTEP games.
If you look at what he is doing today, and look back at his record for the last 40 years, you simply cannot find another individual who has contributed so much to so many.
Friends, now too numerous to count, recall that after Phillips landed in El Paso, he was suddenly everywhere.
“He certainly became Mr. El Paso,” recalls Jimmy Rogers Jr. He met Phillips in 1970 when Rogers discovered KHEY radio was giving his own pet project, the Sun Bowl, an extraordinary amount of unsolicited publicity.
Myrna Deckert, now director of the Paso del Norte Health Foundation, offered the following comments, but any number of others had similar stories:
“I met Jim through the non-profit sector. He served on the YWCA advisory board. The first time I was in his office it was to ask for money for the YWCA,” Deckert said.
“I will never forget it, because when you’re younger and not used to asking people for money, and then you meet somebody who will listen and is kind, it’s reassuring.
“He said he would think about my request and call, which, of course, typically means no. But he did think about it and he did call. If he says he will do something, he absolutely will do it.
“He is a gentle, kind soul. I can’t even imagine how much money he has raised for non-profits in this community. He has helped every organization that has had a campaign here raise money. I can’t think of any organization here in El Paso he hasn’t worked with.”
The mentor man
There is another side to Phillips that is less well known – that of mentor. Says Bank of the West chair Rick Francis: “I got to know Jim in the late 1980s. He took me under his wing, and was a great mentor. He encouraged me to get involved on civic and non-profit boards as a way to give back to the community.”
Phillips has held the title of chairman at three iterations of the bank that is now Wells Fargo – perhaps Francis’ biggest competitor.
“He instilled in me a common vision of doing what’s right for El Paso and this goes well beyond competition,” Francis said.
Mentoring, in fact, is one of the words we heard often from Phillips’ fans. Says son J.R. Phillips: “Whether it is presidents of banks, owners of businesses, the cleaning lady and everything in between, if you brought together all the people he has mentored through the years, you could fill the Sun Bowl.”
“Why?” we asked J.R.
“He wants to make the world a better place for his family. As far as mentoring other people, he wants to make the world a better place for them. As far as his civic involvement, he wants to make El Paso a better place. He just wanted to make a difference and he has done an admirable job at that.”
Karen Pearson, who worked for Phillips for nearly 10 years, agreed. She says hardly anyone ever left the radio station when Phillips was running it because he was so great to work for.
“He mentored you because he wanted you to be your best in your industry. The best you could be – but always in an honest way. He is a relationship-building person. That is why he does everything. I learned a lot from him,” she said.
Relationships, it appears, were key to Phillips’ success. Nathan Christian, who headed Wells Fargo operations here and now runs the bank’s business in Colorado, once put it this way:
“You could set Phillips down at a card table at the intersection of Main and Kansas one morning and by noon he would know 500 people.”
The early years
Here are a few highlights on how Phillips came to be in El Paso and what happened when he got here:
Born in Dallas, J.R. says his dad grew up poorer than most on the south side, in a family of six, the son of a man who delivered ice for a living. After high school, Phillips enlisted in the Air Force and wound up instructing at the basic airman indoctrination center at Lackland Air Force Base.
When he got out of the service he enrolled at TCU, graduating in 1958 with a bachelor’s degree in communication. Texas oilman Sid Richardson took a shine to Phillips and brought him into the radio business.
Phillips then worked as an executive at stations in Fort Worth and McAllen, eventually becoming an investor and director for stations in Shreveport, Amarillo, Reno, Columbia, Brownsville and Corpus Christi.
In March 1969, tragedy struck Phillips and his family. Phillip’s first wife Janet, and two daughters, Julie, 10 and Janie Lynn, 5, died in a car crash near Three Rivers, Texas. Only Jim and son J.R. survived.
Although he was involved with a number of radio properties, he wanted to run his own. So, in late 1969 Phillips purchased KHEY and moved to El Paso.
He hit the ground running, involving himself in just about every major civic and charitable organization in the city. In 1971, according to J.R., “he married a wonderful lady named Nita who has been a godsend.”
Phillips sold KHEY in 1989, but not before a little foray into the banking world, which came when he was invited to sit on the board of MBank.
When MBank went into bankruptcy, Phillips became part of a binational group of investors that bought the bank and what emerged was the reconstituted State National Bank. Phillips was elected chairman.
State National was purchased by Norwest in 1996, but Phillips stayed on as chair and the bank operated as a stand-alone unit until it was folded into Norwest. Norwest and Wells Fargo merged about two years later and Phillips continues to this day as chairman of the Wells Fargo Community Advisory Board.
It is perhaps fitting to wrap this up with a quote from the person that knows him best: his wife Nita:
“I think he has had his finger in more things than even some of us know. Over the years, people have brought their children, their teenagers, to visit with Jim and get his advice. He has the ability to get someone to talk and as parents we can’t always do that with our own children.”
The Phillips file
Current board affiliations
Chair, Wells Fargo Community Advisory Board
Sierra Providence Health Network Board of Directors and Past Chairman
Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce Foundation Board
University of Texas at El Paso Development Board
Candlelighters of El Paso Advisory Board
Hospice of El Paso Foundation Board
El Paso Holocaust Museum Advisory Board
El Paso Zoological Association Advisory Board
Texas Tech Medical Center Development Board
Texas Radio Hall of Fame, Founding Director
Project Arriba Board of Directors
Center Against Family Violence, Co-Chair, Major Gifts
Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Committee on Community Development Block Grant Distribution
State National Bank Board of Directors, Chairman, 199l-1995
Texas Council on Economic Education Board of Directors
Texas Association of Taxpayers Board of Directors
Texas Low Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Authority Board of Directors
Arbitron Radio Advisory Council Board of Directors
All Radio Music Licensing Committee Board of Directors
National Association of Broadcasters Board of Directors and Legislative Committee
Texas Election Bureau Board of Directors
El Paso Community Foundation Board of Directors
El Paso Chapter, National Conference of Christians and Jews, 1989-1990
El Paso Chamber of Commerce, 1980-1981
United Way of El Paso, 1979
Better Business Bureau, 1978-1979
Sun Carnival Association, 1976
El Paso Boys Club, 1973-1974
East El Paso Rotary Club, 1973-1974
El Paso Industrial Development Corp., 1977-1978, 1988
El Paso Arts Alliance, 1979-1980
Texas Association of Broadcasters, 1979
Fort Worth Junior Chamber, 1962-1963
McAllen United Way, 1968
UTEP El Dorados
El Paso Ad Man of the Year, 1975
National Conference of Christians and Jews, Human Relations Award, 1981
City of El Paso Conquistador Award, 1981
El Paso Board of Realtors Outstanding Citizen Award, 1984
Prevent Blindness, Honoree of the Year, 1985
Honorary Chairman, Lighthouse for the Blind Drive, 1985
Honorary Chairman, Easter Seals Telethon, 1985
Silver Beaver Award, YUCCA Council, Boy Scouts of America, 1989
Broadcaster of the Year 1989, Texas Association of Broadcasters
Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Chairman Award 1994 and 1996
Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce, Star Award, 1995
LULAC, Humanitarian Award, 1996
United Way, Champion of Caring Award, 1999
Rotary Club of El Paso, Distinguished Service Award, 2001
Paul Harris Fellow, Rotary Club of El Paso, 2001
Texas Radio Hall of Fame, 2003
Pioneer Broadcaster of the Year, Texas Association of Broadcasters, 2005
Association of Fundraising Professionals, Outstanding Philanthropist, 2005
Greater El Paso Chamber, J.R. Phillips Scholarship Fund, 2008
El Paso Advertising Federation Outstanding Service, 2008