Edward Willett

Up close and personal with Paul J. Hill

With the summer issue of Fine Lifestyles Regina just around the corner, I thought I’d post my cover story from the spring issue, an interview with Regina businessman Paul J. Hill. Enjoy!

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Paul Hill says he’s most known in Regina for three things: his blue 1976 Mercury Marquis, his habit of consuming eight Diet Cokes a day, and his addiction to non-fat frozen yogurt.

Of course, that list leaves out one other minor thing of note: Paul is president and CEO of The Hill Companies and Harvard Developments Inc., companies intimately intertwined with the history of Regina, owning and/or managing more than two million square feet in Regina and five million square feet in Western Canada.

The Hill Companies were born in 1903 as McCallum Hill & Company, formed by Walter H.A. Hill (Paul’s grandfather) and a partner. Walter Hill later sold the land on which the Saskatchewan Legislative Building now stands to the provincial government, and went on to develop the Lakeview residential area. Paul’s father, the late Frederick W. Hill, after completing an MBA at the Harvard Business School, joined the company to work with his father in 1947.

Born in the U.S.A.

Although he’s definitely a Regina boy, growing up in the city and attending Campion College, Paul was born in Cambridge, Mass.

“My father was in the Canadian Air Force,” he explains. “He was discharged because he had a rheumatic fever history, and decided to get an MBA at Harvard.

“During his first term, Pearl Harbor was bombed, and the Americans were ramping up their armed services. He went over to the recruiter and said he wanted to get inducted. So when everyone else was trying to get deferments, he ended up in the U.S. Army Air Force.”

Fred flew as a captain of B-17 and B-24 bombers and received the Distinguished Flying Cross with three oak-leaf clusters. During training exercises, he met Paul’s mother in Washington, D.C. while she was working at the British Embassy. They fell in love right away and after five dates got married.

Fred went on to serve in the U.S. Army Air Force overseas, and was discharged in 1945. He returned to Harvard University, and Paul was born in October of 1945.

The family returned to Regina in 1947, but Paul went back to the U.S. for university, thanks to one of his father’s war-time connections: his co-pilot, Paul’s godfather, was from Washington. “He was a Georgetown guy, and so I ended up going to Georgetown University.”

Paul says he was interested in business from a very early age. (Although he admits that one time in Grade 1 or 2 he expressed an interest in being a fireman).

“My father would always bring his associates back to the house at the end of the day,” he recalls. “I would always have a high level of curiosity, and sit and listen to their conversations.”

When Paul met Carol

Young Paul was interested in more than just business, of course. He was also interested in girls. He met his future wife, Carol Erb, daughter of former provincial cabinet minister Walter Erb, when he was actually dating her best friend.

“I took her best friend home and Carol was there, and that’s how we met,” he recalls.

Paul was at Campion College and Carol was in Grade 12 at Sacred Heart at the time, but their paths hadn’t crossed because until that year she and her best friend had been attending Luther College.

“We got married the same year, December 28, 1963,” Paul says. He already knew he was going to Georgetown University, and “we decided that since I was going away the next four years that we wanted to commit to each other for the rest of our life, and we wouldn’t be able to do that if we lived apart for the next four years.”

Carol joined Paul at Georgetown, and also studied there. From Georgetown they moved to London, Ont., where Paul attended the Richard Ivey School of Business, “the Harvard of Canada,” obtaining his MBA.

Like Harvard, the Ivey School of Business teaches business via “case method,” Paul explains.

“It’s a program that involves hundreds of cases that are written about real-life circumstances in various companies and business,” he says. “The cases are focused on various aspects of the business decision-making process. The goal is to learn how to make a better decisions through a disciplined thought process.

“You can’t study for it. It’s a very intense program that goes right up until the last day of class. The next day you go into two sets of four-hour exams. There’s nothing you could ever study for. It was all learning how to make decisions, recognize opportunities, and anticipate problems, learning how to solve them before they occur.”

From school, Paul went into the investment banking business in Toronto with the predecessor of what is now Nesbitt Burns, working as an analyst. From Toronto he went to Winnipeg, where he managed the company’s retail and institutional operation.

Back in Regina

Then, in 1976, he returned home to work with his father. (That was when he bought the Mercury Marquis.) In 1978 he was appointed president of The Hill Companies, the position he’s held ever since.

Paul believes he put his stamp on the companies early, not through any grand strategic planning, but simply by being “entrepreneurial and opportunistic.” One of the first things he oversaw was the acquisition of the local CTV television station, followed by the growth of Harvard Broadcasting Inc. radio stations 620 CKRM and Lite 92 FM and 104.9 The WOLF. “We are a strong regional radio broadcaster today,” Paul notes, the company having extended its media holdings to Yorkton, Saskatoon, Calgary, Red Deer, Edmonton and Fort McMurray.

“The second thing that happened was putting together a team of experienced real estate professionals to fulfill the redevelopment plan for downtown Regina,” Paul continues. “This included the demolition of the old McCallum-Hill building, built by my grandfather in 1912. It was replaced with the Hill Centre Towers I & II.”

(An interesting side note: the Hill Centre Towers I & II were designed by the Chicago architectural firm Skidmore Owings and Merrill, which was just in the news again as the architects of the world’s new tallest building, the Burj Dubai. “You can go to any international city in the world, and you will find a Skidmore Owings building which will stand out as unique to that total environment,” Paul notes. “We went to Skidmore to give us a unique design that will only be in Regina and nowhere else in the world. That’s the difference they make. Our design will never be duplicated. It’s served the city well, and we have that connection on the world stage.”)

The company followed that up with several more distinctive downtown buildings, including the Bank of Montreal Building, the Crown Life (now Canada Life) Building, and the FCC Tower/Agriculture Place Building, and spearheaded the linkage of all those buildings via climate-controlled pedestrian walkways.

The Hill Companies started out focused on real estate and insurance, and that’s still the core business, Paul says. “Today, that includes Harvard Western Insurance, the general insurance company, Western Surety Company, the contract-bonding company, and Harvard Developments Inc., a full service real estate company.”

Diversification into the U.S.

Another big change during Paul’s stewardship has been diversification into the United States. “We made a decision to diversify into the United States, and opportunistically had acquired the Canadian assets of Tenneco Oil of Canada Ltd., with an American partner. It’s now called Harvard Energy.

“That was a big change that was motivated by what was happening in Ottawa. In 1979 to 1981, when Pierre Elliot Trudeau was prime minister, it became clear that Canada might be in for some long-term problems as a result of fiscal irresponsibility and massive government intrusion into the economy, such as the National Energy Program. It really stemmed from my background in the investment banking industry. I was aware of the penalty Canada was going to have to pay over the next 20 years, which is exactly the same set of circumstances that is now occurring in the United States under the Obama administration.”

Another major diversification move was the acquisition, with partners, of a bankrupt company, UFR Urban Forest Recyclers Inc. of Swift Current. The company developed a manufacturing business making molded fiber products, and now has more than 40 percent of the North American egg tray market.

In 1990, The Hill Companies made national news by acquiring the controlling interest in Crown Life and moving it to Regina from Toronto. “That brought 1,200 jobs to Regina and expanded the GDP of the province by two percent and of the city by 10 percent,” Paul notes. “I became Chairman and it prospered for a number of years. It’s now owned by Canada Life and remains a significant presence in the City.”

“Our western Canadian real estate company continues to grow,” he adds.  “Under the leadership of our talented senior management team, we have under development a major retail urban center in Regina called ‘Grasslands’ at Harbour Landing, as well as ‘Preston Crossing,’ located on the University of Saskatchewan lands in Saskatoon, the ‘Eau Claire’ redevelopment in Calgary and ‘The Currents of Windermere‘ in Edmonton. These are major multi-year developments which include large national retailers. The projects are in the 20- to 100-acre size and range from $50 million to $800 million. This is the next 10 years of our company. It will literally change these cities.”

Green technology is another focus. “We owned a U.S. software company which developed programs for health and safety and environmental management,” Paul says. “The customer base included many Fortune 500 companies and many foreign companies operating out of Asia, the Middle East and Europe. We’re very focused on reducing the costs associated with the production of energy and eliminating, as much as possible, the excessive consumption of products that produce emissions.”

Harvard Developments is the first organization in Saskatchewan operating under private-public partnership to obtain LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Silver Accreditation, on the redeveloped Century Plaza building located in downtown Regina.

Though Regina has always been, and continues to be, home base, “Saskatchewan has had a history of not having continuous growth, which has encouraged us to diversify into other geographic areas, and also to be entrepreneurial and opportunistic with regard to other industries,” Paul says.

“My grandfather struggled and survived through the two world wars and the 1930s. The company Walter Hill founded is the only real estate business in Canada that has survived a full 100 years: it celebrated its centennial in 2003.”

Now, says Paul, “Saskatchewan is again growing. The Hill Companies have developed an excellent, experienced team with capabilities second-to-none in Saskatchewan. They are dedicated to assisting and helping to bring the province’s growth opportunities into reality.” The cities of Saskatchewan, Paul says, deserve to enjoy the finest facilities and services of any jurisdiction in the country.

Inspired by Mother Teresa

Making Regina and Saskatchewan better places to live is very important to both Paul and Carol. Paul notes that he and his wife had the opportunity to visit Mother Theresa in India with other CEOs and their spouses in the 1980s.

“She really mesmerized the group we were with,” Paul remembers. “Many wanted to help her initiatives around the world. But her response to us was, ‘Go back to your own community, identify the needs, and give both of yourself and your resources to help those people.’”

Paul and Carol have always been interested in helping students become leaders in society. They support Athol Murray College of Notre Dame in Wilcox, attended by students from all over Western Canada and other parts of the world.

A major new initiative emanating from Mother Teresa’s message is now at the feasibility stage, as Paul works to establish a Nativity Miguel School in Regina.

“What this network of schools in the United States have done is entered into the inner cities, taken kids from Grade 6, 7 and 8, from diversified backgrounds, and developed their educational and motivational skills to the point where they have been able to change a 90-percent drop-out rate for these students in high school to a 90-percent pass rate.

“The school takes 15 to 20 kids per class at a time, and works with them for extended hours and days for three years, giving them the foundation for success in high school and beyond. We’ve been working on it for two years. We hope to be up and running next year.”

Alongside that initiative, the Hills have set up a foundation called “One Life Makes a Difference” to select one student at a time to be given an opportunity to get out of the environment they are in and attend a school such as Notre Dame to obtain a complete educational experience that can take them on to university.

Other education initiatives have included the evolution of the University of Regina’s Faculty of Business Administration into the Paul J. Hill School of Business. The business school has always been reputable, Paul says, but “there was an opportunity to take it to the next level in terms of quality and recognition.”

The Paul J. Hill School of Business is now partnered with the Richard Ivey School of Business, where Paul received his MBA, “recognized as one of the top schools in the world.” The school is implementing the full case-method program used at Ivey and Harvard, and also includes a student exchange program and Ph.D. development. As well, business cases from Western Canada are now being written and distributed on a worldwide basis under the Hill-Ivey brand name. The program includes a specific emphasis on business ethics.

Paul and Carol have also helped initiate a Catholic studies program at Campion College.

Five children

Their own children have all attended Jesuit-run universities in the United States. “We wanted them to experience American culture, and to go to schools that require a minimum amount of philosophy and theology,” Paul says.

Eldest daughter Rosanne Hill Blaisdell, who like her father obtained an MBA, is working with Harvard Developments and is responsible for the company’s office portfolio in Regina and in Calgary.

Their second daughter, Shannon, got a law degree and now at age 42 has gone back to school, after having three children, for a medical degree.

Their only son, Matthew, married a girl from Michigan and has founded a technology-related company is Los Angeles. Their second-youngest daughter, January, is in early childhood education in Calgary, and their youngest, Kathryn, is a practicing psychologist in Calgary.

Paul and Carol continue to call Regina home, although, Paul notes, “When it gets cold, we go south. I commute back and forth and the rest is done by phone, fax and email.”

In the summer, they enjoy a cottage at the Lake of the Woods in northwestern Ontario (the Winnipeg connection) but still keep the family cottage in the Qu’Appelle Valley. “I grew up going to Katepwa Lake in the summertime and worked at a local beach and boat club,” Paul says.

They play a little bit of golf and enjoy the social amenities at the Wascana Country Club. Both keep physically active. “We were joggers,” Paul says. “Well, Carol still is. My knees have gone.”

Culturally, they enjoy shows at Globe Theatre and the Conexus Arts Centre, and going to the movies. “Mostly, we just like being with family,” Paul says.

Oh, and football. “We as a family have had a lifelong commitment to the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Carol was Miss Saskatchewan Roughrider in 1963! We’ve attended every Grey Cup since then together, along with most of our children.

“Harvard’s 620 CKRM has the broadcasting rights for the Roughrider games,” Paul continues. “I am currently honoured to be on the board of the club. Also, several employees and business associates have and continue to be actively involved in supporting the club.”

Favorite restaurants include Earl’s, the Lakeshore Steak House, Golf’s and Memories (and TCBY, of course, thanks to Paul’s addiction to frozen yogurt).

A love of travel

The Hills love Regina, but they also like to travel. They founded the Canadian Chapter of The Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museum, a select group dedicated to the preservation and perpetuation of the collection of art contained in the Vatican Museums. Money raised by the organization is used for restoration projects, such as the four-year restoration of the Raphael tapestry, St. Paul in Prison.

“Now we are restoring a necropolis under the Vatican parking lot that has perfectly preserved tombs going back to the period from 200 BC to 400 AD,” Paul says. “There are stories about persons, one of whom ran the chariot races for Emperor Nero. Other stories include a description of the daily lives of ordinary people of their times. It’s fascinating. Every two years we take the Canadian chapter to Rome for a full agenda at the Vatican.

“We like Hawaii, of course, everybody does,” Paul continues. “The last three or four years we’ve gone to southern Spain. We’ve learned very little Spanish, but we’ve taken in the history and culture of Spain as well as spending some time with its former president. We developed an interest in Spain and its history and culture.

“We’ve been most places in the world, but there’s one place that we’ve not been to that we will be going to this year, and that’s Russia. We’ll be in St. Petersburg and Moscow for the first time.”

Saskatchewan: A land of opportunity

The Hill Companies were created by entrepreneurs taking advantage of an opportunity that presented itself. Does Paul feel there are still opportunities in Saskatchewan?

“Absolutely,” he says. In fact, he thinks the opportunities are greater now than they have ever been in his lifetime, because at various times in Saskatchewan’s history, “it was very difficult for a company to start and survive during various points in its history,” he notes.

“The wars and the ’30s were very difficult economic times. After the war, in the 1950s, business faced the challenge of the Tommy Douglas government and the CCF manifesto, which called for the total eradication of capitalism. Many companies either left the province or were taken over by the government. One of those companies was ours, Saskatchewan Guaranty and Fidelity, the predecessor to Western Surety Company, which was managed by the predecessor to Harvard Western Insurance. In spite of this we stayed and remained committed.”

But, he says, “The negative aspects of the socialist environment have slowly been removed over time. Successive governments of the province have moved toward encouraging the private sector to grow and develop as well as encouraging the expansion and exploration of the resource sector toward its full potential. It is also becoming a more competitive jurisdiction to attract business and jobs.

“The province is moving in the right direction. The Hill Companies hope to continue contributing to the growth of this great province and at the same time focus on improving the lives of the people who live here. We will maintain our entrepreneurial philosophy, while practicing our principles and values within the context of lessons learned from the past.

“I am optimistic and have great faith in the future of The Hill Companies and our province. I believe our enterprise will continue to enjoy the success brought about by dedicated employees and partners.”

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