Photo by: The Paul J. Hill Group of Companies
Paul Hill is not keen on public speaking, which means he turns down lots of invitations. Still, before he receives an honorary degree from the University of Regina, Hill notes that he's already jotted down some thoughts and ideas about what he'll share with the spring 2011 graduates. While he's a reluctant public speaker, he's also looking forward to being a part of spring convocation.
"I'm honoured and I'm humbled," Hill says. "It was an honour I didn't expect."
Hill has said he's most known in Regina for three things: his 1976 Mercury Marquis (which runs fine with regular maintenance and the occasional rust proofing); his eight-Diet- Coke-a-day habit (he's trying to cut back to six); and his extreme fondness for non-fat frozen yogurt (that includes filing away the location of frozen yogurt shops in cities where he visits).
Hill's honorary degree, of course, recognizes the imprint he has made on Regina, and on Saskatchewan and Canada for that matter. As far as his convocation speech is concerned, the man has a lot to draw upon: As the chairman, president and CEO of The Hill Companies and Harvard Developments Inc. Hill could share stories about the family business, which has not only survived into the fourth generation, but is thriving. He may talk about the philosophy behind his philanthropy, including the School of Business at the U of R that bears his name.
Another topic might be the importance of a good education, inside and outside the classroom, including the benefits of being exposed to different people, places and cultures. Hill might also speak about the absolute necessity of living a life guided by good principles and values. In the course of the interview Hill discusses all of these topics, and in the process, illustrates how for him and his family, they are all interrelated.
For example Hill responds without hesitation when he is asked how his grandfather, Walter Hill, and his father, Frederick W. Hill, have influenced him. "They were both principled, Christian men. They acted on the Christian principles that guided their lives. That included integrity in how they lived their lives, and their respect for other human beings," he says.
Although he died in 2008, Fred Hill remains a strong influence on his son and the family business. His name and image are displayed on The Hill Companies website where he is identified as Past Chairman and Director. A company history commissioned by The Hill Companies, A History of Breaking New Ground, chronicles the foundations laid by Walter Hill and built upon by Frederick W. The book could also serve as a primer on entrepreneurship, complete with details of breakthrough deals and dramatic corporate near-death experiences. Skimming the company history book leads to a discussion with Paul Hill about risk-taking over the years since Walter Hill partnered with the McCallum family to create McCallum Hill & Company in Regina in 1903.
"I remember a particular transaction," Hill says, "that my father wanted to do, but didn't have the financial capability. My grandfather did have the capability, but he told my father, ‘I can't do it. I can't sleep at night.' So my father flew down to Toronto and asked his banker to finance the deal, even though he had nothing to offer in the way of assets or equity. The bank agreed to the loan."
While this might look like audacious risk-taking to most, Hill states he is more willing to take risks than his father. To illustrate, he pulls another story out of the family vault. This time the deal involved Paul Hill and his father, at a time when the real estate market was just coming out of a slump. The question revolved around whether to seal the transaction by taking cash from the company, stock in the company, or any combination of the two. His father wanted to take the cash while Paul saw that the company had "tremendous upside." They agreed on a 50-50 split. Five years later the stock's worth had jumped 100 to 200 times what it had been. The younger Hill has no regrets.
"I'm less risk-averse than my dad, which is both good and bad," he says with a chuckle. "He experienced both the Great Depression of the 1930s and World War II. As it was, the cash helped us out immensely."
Education is clearly the focus of Hill's philanthropy, and is obviously influenced by family connections, his own education and his career path. After graduating from Regina's Campion College - a high school run by the Jesuits - he attended the Jesuit-run Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. (Frederick Hill was a bomber pilot in World War II, and his co-pilot, Paul's godfather, had attended Georgetown. It was another connection to a wider world.) Paul then received his MBA at the Richard Ivey School of Business - sometimes referred to as the Harvard of Canada - in London, Ont. He spent eight years in investment banking, working in Toronto and then Winnipeg. That experience enabled him to sharpen his research and analytical skills, and at a young age, gave him access to the heads of major corporations across the country. Following a conversation with his father, Paul joined The Hill Companies in 1976 as general manager. Two years later his father named him president, while retaining the position of chairman. In the years following, the family business expanded dramatically, driven by economics, politics and opportunities.
"The Trudeau era was one of fiscal irresponsibility, with (federal) deficits going from $3 billion to $38 billion per year over his last four years in office," Hill recalls. "It was clear it was time to diversify, and we began looking for opportunities in the United States. Canada paid the price for that irresponsibility in the 1990s - a boom time economically - when the spread in living standards between Canada and the United States widened by an additional 20 percent. Disposable income in Canada dropped by nine percent, while it rose by 11 percent in the States. Now, Canada's finances are well managed, and problems similar to those Canada went through are cropping up south of the border."
There is some back story that needs to filled in here. Paul already knew he would be going to Georgetown when he met his future wife, Carol, the daughter of Walter Erb, a former provincial cabinet minister. She was in Grade 12 at Sacred Heart Academy in Regina. He was in Grade 12 at Campion High School. They married on December 28, 1963, and have ensured that each of their children - Rosanne, Shannon, Matthew, January and Kathryn - experienced a well-rounded education that included attending residential high schools in Canada's east and west, exposure to philosophy and theology, and to life in the United States.
"We wanted our children to attend university in the United States so they could experience a different culture," Hill explains. "We chose Jesuit-run universities because of the amount of philosophy and theology taught. You can acquire all the technical skills needed to perform a job, but beyond that you need to understand your relationship to God, and gain a deeper understanding of yourself. Philosophy and theology can help you do that."
This broader approach to education shows up in several ways. Hill supported the introduction of a certificate program in Catholic Studies at Campion College. The creation of the Paul J. Hill School of Business at the U of R included the addition of courses on ethics in business. Since then the school has partnered with the Richard Ivey School of Business, which facilitates the exchange of students and, equally as important for Hill, case studies.
"Case studies are the best way to learn about business because they deal with real-life situations," Hill states. "You can't memorize the answer; it's about the thought process you go through. Your solution might be the wrong answer," he adds with a laugh, "but the process helps you recognize opportunities, and to evaluate alternative courses of action, and the consequences of each. You have to evaluate what level of risk you're willing to expose yourself to.
"If you had 50 people study the same business case, it's possible they all might choose a different course of action. That improves the probability of success, and that's what the case method is about. You either get it, or you don't get it."
Because the Ivey School of Business is ranked second in the world for case studies, the partnership means U of R business students have access to the best. It also means cases dealing with western Canadian situations will receive greater attention, elevating the profile of the Hill School and the West.
"Business school grads working here historically have not experienced case studies dealing with the West," Hill observes. "Increasing their familiarity with cases based in the West will enhance their ability to move forward in a western Canadian environment."
The Hills are also involved in other initiatives to help students become leaders. Following in Fred Hill's footsteps, Paul and Carol support Athol Murray College of Notre Dame at Wilcox, Sask., a residential school attended by about 320 students from across Canada and around the world. Notre Dame grads are given preference to receive Paul Hill Scholarships in Business Ethics at the U of R, and preference for Paul and Carol Hill Scholarships for up to four courses in the Catholic Studies program offered by Campion College.
The Hills also established a foundation called "One Life Makes a Difference" that enables a student from a disadvantaged background to attend a school such as Notre Dame, improving the odds they will make it to university. However, Hill determined that wasn't enough, which led him to yet another ambitious project.
"When I grew up in Regina, we didn't have an inner-city problem with crime and a 90 percent school dropout rate," Hill observes. "While there are many organizations doing good things to address inner-city problems, I saw an opportunity when by chance I learned about NativityMiguel schools in the United States."
NativityMiguel middle schools offer inner-city students a longer school day and a longer school year, in classes averaging no more than 20 students. There is now a network of 65 such schools in the United States. They have turned 90 percent dropout rates into 90 percent high school graduation rates. Many of the schools' graduates go on to success in postsecondary education.
"The reason the NativityMiguel schools have turned the ratio upside down," Hill says, "is because the students are able to work on themselves, their self-esteem and their skills, so that they have what they need to be successful in life."
For the past two and a half years Hill has been working towards establishing a NativityMiguel school in Regina. That work will come to fruition this fall when Mother Theresa Middle School opens its doors to 20 Grade 6 students. Eventually it will have about 15 to 20 kids each in Grades 6, 7 and 8. In part, Hill hopes, the new school, the first of its kind in Canada, will accelerate the One Life Makes a Difference process.
"We've been working with the inner-city schools, finding the one or two students who can go to Notre Dame and be successful," Hill explains. "We'd like to increase that to 20 students at a time. We hope Mother Theresa Middle School will make a difference."
Asked if he feels a sense of satisfaction now that all the groundwork has been completed, he replies, "I think it will help address the challenges we face in inner-city Regina," echoing the spirit of optimism that has animated the Hill family over the years.
Bill Armstrong is a Regina freelance writer and amateur photographer with a strong interest in Saskatchewan's history.