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REGIONAL— After eight years at the helm of the most influential state agency on the Iron Range, Mark Phillips is heading into retirement— but not without having made his mark on the …
REGIONAL— After eight years at the helm of the most influential state agency on the Iron Range, Mark Phillips is heading into retirement— but not without having made his mark on the region.
Phillips, whose career spanned four decades in both the public and private sector, helped shape significant changes in the direction of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation and in the culture of the agency itself. While every IRRR commissioner puts their stamp on the agency, Phillips, whose eight-years at the helm was tied with Sandy Layman for the longest tenure of any commissioner in the agency’s 80-year history, leaves having made a bigger impact than most.
“I have kind of a four-prong mantra that became our guiding philosophy,” said Phillips, who sat down for an extended interview this week from his home on Lake Vermilion. While the agency has long focused on job creation, Phillips pushed the agency to focus on quality over quantity.
“We were already beginning to face the workforce shortages at that time,” he said. “If you just create jobs, well, we’re going to create more workforce problems for the existing businesses. But if people are leaving for better paying jobs, that’s a good thing.”
Phillips also worked to turn the agency away from what he often described as “chasing smokestacks,” toward a greater emphasis on building communities on the Range that offered a high quality of life. Phillips said such an approach not only makes life better for existing residents but makes area communities more attractive for new residents as well, some of whom will become entrepreneurs in order to remain in a place they enjoy.
That idea, in part, encouraged Phillips to reverse an agency policy that restricted investment in some outdoor recreation activities, like hiking, mountain biking, and ATV trails. During his tenure, the agency poured more than $13 million into regional trails, helping to leverage an additional $16 million in investment.
While Phillips said he received some pushback on the trail investments, some of those investments, like the Redhead mountain biking trail in Chisholm, have attracted a tremendous amount of ridership, both from locals as well as visitors. He also backed considerable investment in new trails and amenities at Giants Ridge.
Phillips also pushed the agency to play a helping role in advancing projects, rather than regularly serving as the primary funder of many projects, as the agency had done for years. Now, the agency is routinely using its resources to leverage as much as ten dollars from other funders, including other state and federal grants, or private sector loans, for every dollar invested by the agency.
Phillips was also determined to bring a change of culture to the agency, to encourage and empower the agency’s employees to trust themselves while giving them more latitude to do their jobs.
It was a culture shift he experienced during his decade of work at Minnesota Power. “When I first went to Minnesota Power, it was like the military,” he said. “But the leadership made the change,” and it was one that Phillips recognized as a step forward. Phillips said it suited his style in either case. “I’ve always been more of a team player than a top-down kind of person,” he said.
Phillips was also receptive to concerns about some of the challenges faced by communities in the region. As the lack of available workers became increasingly apparent, the agency began investing in childcare to the tune of about $1.9 million, an investment that leveraged about $14.7 million in total investment. The commitment to furthering childcare opportunities ticked at least two boxes for the agency, since it expanded workforce availability while enhancing quality of life for young parents who have struggled with childcare in the region for years.
A long background in economic development
Phillips, who is 72, grew up in Eveleth, but like many talented Iron Rangers, the pull of greater opportunity took him away from home, at least for a time. He earned a business degree at UM-D back in the 1970s but was soon back on the Range when then-IRRR commissioner Gary Lamppa recruited him. He spent five years at the agency in the 1980s when he, among other things, established a business lending program that’s still in existence. He spent two months in the banking field at Norwest, but when Minnesota Power approached him, he accepted a job with the company. While Minnesota Power is an electric generator, the company also invests in regional economic development and that was a mission that became a focus during his ten years with the company. He later left to join the Northeast Ventures Development Fund, a venture capital firm based in Duluth.
Throughout his work in northeastern Minnesota, Phillips and his wife Patty continued to live in Virginia, but in 2005 they made the move to the Twin Cities, where Phillips worked for a time as a business consultant. Among his clients was Kraus-Anderson, who eventually hired him as a business developer, a position that entailed extensive travel throughout the state.
“I’ve really been in economic development my whole career,” said Phillips.
He returned briefly to government in 2011, when Gov. Mark Dayton recruited him to be commissioner of the Department of Employment and Economic Development, but Phillips said the administrative nature of the job never really appealed to him so he eventually returned to Kraus-Anderson, where he expected to retire a couple years later. But when the IRRR job came open at the end of 2014, Dayton asked Phillips to take it on. Gov. Tim Walz reappointed him to the job in 2018.
His wife Patty had just retired when Dayton made the offer and the switch would give them the opportunity to come back to the Range and live full-time at their summer home on Lake Vermilion.
“I was pretty excited,” said Phillips, who believed his diverse resumé was a good fit for the agency.
He turned out to be right, and his departure will certainly be noticed by employees at the agency as well as local officials who worked with him over the years.
“I’m sad to see him go,” said Chuck Novak, the former Ely mayor who worked regularly with Phillips and those under him to advance a wide range of projects in the city. “He was always able and willing to talk with us on any project,” said Novak. “And he assigned his staff appropriately. You really couldn’t ask for better.”
Longtime IRRR communications director Sheryl Kochevar, who has worked under eight different commissioners, said she found Phillips and the cultural change he brought to the agency to be an inspiration. “He trusted the employees to always do what was right,” she said. “He inspired our communication team to strive for excellence and I think we are a better team because of his leadership.”
While Phillips brought a change in the agency’s traditional approaches in several areas, Kochevar said she felt he had broad support within the agency for the changes and she credited his diverse experiences in economic development as one reason his time at the agency was meaningful. She said Phillips’ time in both the public and private sectors as well his time spent living outside the Iron Range gave him a broader perspective on the agency’s work.
“I think he had a wider vision. I’m going to miss him,” she said.
Phillips said the IRRR job was really his second act, since he had been planning to retire when Dayton made the offer.
If there’s a third act for Phillips, he said it will be as a volunteer for causes he supports. But first he needs to beat the cancer diagnosis he’s been battling for the past five years. Despite several rounds of chemotherapy, Phillips has continued to do his job as commissioner and tried not to let his health issues get in the way.
He’s optimistic by nature and even though previous rounds of therapy haven’t been totally successful, he’s looking ahead to the new challenges yet to come.
“I’ll be involved in one way or another,” he said.
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