The Journey of Dave Phillips
Photography by Brian Ambs
How do you judge the greatness of a coach? Well, you look at the long-term careers and lives of the assistant coaches and players. You ask, ‘What have the people who’ve worked with that coach gone on to do in their own lives? ... I think that’s how you judge the true legacy of any leader. And by that standard, I don’t think anybody in town can come anywhere close. Dave Phillips is ... well, he’s phenomenal.” – Brian Malthouse, president of VonLehman & Company
Dave Phillips, co-founder of Cincinnati Works, flashes a proud grin. “I’ve done about 1,500 miles on the Appalachian Trail. I go for about one month every year. ... About 700 miles more, and I will have done the whole thing.”
Phillips is 75. He started walking the Appalachian Trail when he was 69. Phillips’ life is a study in proactivity; his professional trajectory a lesson in evolution. Essentially growing through three distinct (but intertwining) careers, Phillips has created a decades-deep network of influence that continues to positively impact the Queen City.
Reflecting on his personal and professional evolution, Phillips shares some of the insights he’s absorbed, the goals that he still has and the joy of sharing the journey with inspirational individuals. That proud grin, meanwhile, becomes an almost ever-present part of the conversation. Though invariably kind, Phillips’ smile isn’t made of pride and joy alone. There’s something deeper there. Something a bit harder.
There is a flinty combination of resoluteness and mischief to Dave Phillips. A maverick’s willfulness and a grandfather’s compassion all rolled into one.
There has been a lot of ink spilled over the years about the “essence of leadership” — What is it? Where does it come from? How can it be leveraged to create a larger impact on the world? But perhaps, right there in those proud, defiant grins, there is a portal into the makeup of a true leader.
“I started the Appalachian Trail when I was turning 70,” he says. “I started in Georgia. And now I’m up to the border of Connecticut. I got hooked.”
Resilient, curious, driven, and deeply self-sufficient, Phillips is on a journey that is always just beginning. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Bird’s Eye View
“The Life and Times of Dave Phillips” could be a book. Or a movie. Either would be wildly successful. Especially if Phillips himself was actively involved. A hard-charging pragmatist with a gift for generating innovative approaches to obstacles both new and entrenched, Phillips has leveraged his unique blend of talent, intelligence and character to produce a prodigious body of work.
Phillips’ resume itself is nearly the length of a novel. The list of his personal, professional, and civic accomplishments is (to put it conservatively) epic:
- Managing partner of Arthur Andersen’s Cincinnati office.
- Regional managing partner of Arthur Andersen’s West Coast offices.
- Industry managing partner of Arthur Andersen.
- Chairman of Cincinnati’s Chamber of Commerce.
- CEO of Downtown Cincinnati Inc.
- Co-founder of Cincinnati Works, Inc.
- Recipient of the prestigious Great Living Cincinnatian Award.
- Husband, father, grandfather.
- World traveler.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Phillips’ community involvement spans the Cincinnati spectrum, from hospitals and schools to churches, museums and the zoo. His collection of titles is nearly as comprehensive: director, chairman, president, trustee, board member.
Phillips has been instrumental in conceiving and coordinating some of the most visionary developments in Cincinnati’s recent era of transformation. Merging the Natural History Museum with the Cincinnati Historical Society and moving them to the iconic Union Terminal? That’s him. Phillips worked with key community leaders to produce the initial concept and then personally devised and promoted the financing strategy that made the project a reality.
A revitalized, re-envisioned downtown, complete with all the must-haves of a modern metropolitan city center? That’s him, too. As the first CEO of Downtown Cincinnati Inc. (DCI), Phillips was part of the effort that laid the initial groundwork that has ultimately reinvigorated the experience of being a Cincinnatian.
Honor and Drive
Suffice it to say, Phillips has earned every one of those proud grins that flash across his face. He has also earned his title as a Great Living Cincinnatian. The prestigious award, which is presented each year by the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber, honors citizens whose work is not only a positive contribution to the city but also a testament to the potential of the human spirit.
Valerie Newell, chairman and managing director of RiverPoint Capital, says, “It was really very special that Dave was nominated and received the award on the first try. A lot of people who are awarded the Great Living Cincinnatian are nominated two or three times. That’s just the way it is.
... But Dave was nominated and received the award all in the same year!
“That’s not a surprise, really. But it was very special. And it’s a true indication of what he’s done for the city.”
Newell, who helped nominate Phillips for the Great Living Cincinnatian Award in 2011, was a member of Phillips’s team during a large portion of his 32-year tenure at Arthur Andersen. Those years instilled in her an enduring respect for his work ethic and commitment to the community.
“He’s a very inspiring person,” she says. “He always worked so hard. He lived and breathed it. And when you have somebody like that, somebody that’s also constantly talking about how important the principles of relationship and achievement are, those ideals and morals really become a driving part of the culture.”
The First Steps
Newell reiterates that Phillips’ professional life is comprised of three stages. “He’s basically had three whole careers. ... Stage One: Arthur Andersen. Stage Two: Downtown Cincinnati Inc. Stage Three: Cincinnati Works.
“And throughout the entire time, he’s had his various directorships and community projects. His work ethic is just incredible.”
Raised doing chores on his grandfather’s small farm in Ohio and educated at University of Dayton, Phillips went to work in 1962 as a staff auditor for Arthur Andersen, a public accounting firm that provided auditing, tax and consulting services to leading corporations. His technical capacity, integrity-centered perspective, and farm-bred work ethic (which perfectly matched the firm’s “think straight, talk straight” culture) propelled him through the ranks to partner in charge of the Cincinnati Audit Division. That post was quickly followed by a promotion to managing partner of the Cincinnati office.
Phillips held that position until promotions took him out of Cincinnati and eventually around the world. Serving as regional managing partner of the West Coast, and later as firm-wide industry managing partner, Phillips continued to apply an inspiring level of dedication to his work. He logged nearly five million air miles in six years.
Focusing on Phillips’ early days building the Cincinnati office, Newell points out that Arthur Andersen was the next-to-last of the “Big Eight” accounting firms to open a Cincinnati office. It grew quickly, however, due in large part to Phillips’ ability to understand and navigate the local market.
“Early in his career,” says Newell, “Dave recognized that Cincinnati was a treasure trove of successful family-owned private companies. He set about making Arthur Andersen indispensible to those companies. ... Under Dave’s leadership, the firm grew to become the largest public accounting firm in Cincinnati. By a very wide margin.”
Carrying the Torch
Brian Malthouse, president of VonLehman, a multi-office CPA and advisory firm, says, “Arthur Andersen was the firm to work for in the 1980s and ’90s. ... And from my perspective, Dave is the one that, frankly, deserves the credit for what the firm accomplished during that time.
“More important, though, was the influence he had on a large number of professionals,” Malthouse continues. “Individuals who came up through Arthur Andersen have gone on to be incredibly successful in a broad range of operations. Presidents of billion-dollar companies, for instance. Really amazing, successful people. ... And there’s a lot of Dave’s influence there.”
Malthouse notes that although the firm closed its doors more than 10 years ago, “The Arthur Andersen alumni network is still the strongest network in Cincinnati. And a lot of that comes from the team of individuals that Dave Phillips put together and the culture that he created around us. ... It was phenomenal. From work ethic to civic responsibility, you name it. It was all there.”
Newell emphasizes that Phillips retired from Arthur Andersen eight years prior to the firm’s connection to the Enron scandal of 2002. By that time, Phillips’ commitment to community had already led his career in a new direction.
Charting a New Course
Ready for a change in his professional life, Phillips retired from Arthur Andersen in 1994 at the age of 56. After a six-year absence from Cincinnati, he and his wife, Liane (pictured below), jumped at the chance to return to the city that had been their home for nearly three decades. Stepping into his new role as CEO of Downtown Cincinnati Inc., Phillips not only began charting a new course for himself and his wife, but for the Queen City as well. And because he declined to accept a salary, Phillips would do that all for the grand price of $1 per day.
Incorporating elements of a revitalization project that had been highly successful in Manhattan, Phillips and his team developed a Special Improvement District for downtown.
In typical Phillips fashion, he launched himself into activating resources, uniting support from disparate interested parties and challenging everyone from local shop owners to corporate donors to believe in a new vision of Cincinnati.
With the project stable and gaining momentum, Phillips retired from DCI in 1999. He then joined Liane full-time at Cincinnati Works, the “poverty-to-work” organization they co-founded three years earlier.
The Road Ahead
“There’s a theory that says, as humans, our first need is for food and shelter. As we grow, our need becomes centered around happiness and belonging. And later, that need evolves into a kind of self-actualization, where we’re not driven by ego. ... We’re exactly where we want to be, doing what we want to be doing.” — Valerie Newell
Observing Phillips’ continuing evolution, Newell offers: “He constantly looks at his life and says, ‘What’s important to me?’ And the amazing part is that he always follows through on it! He’s a real inspiration for living your life the way you truly want to live it. And that’s really powerful. ... That’s really brave.”
Cincinnati Work’s revolutionary, holistic approach, which focuses on long-term job retention rather than simple job placement, has put about 5,000 individuals on the road to economic self-sufficiency. Phillips reports that the organization has now reached a 70 percent success rate, with the majority of its members “making it out” and establishing sustainable financial independence. The industry standard, he points out, is 15 percent.
“Poverty is not acceptable,” he says, his grin fading. “Not in the place where my grandkids are going to live. So I’m going to change it. I’m going to do everything within my power to make this better.”
As he continues, highlighting the strides the organization has made in its quest to eliminate poverty, Phillips’ grin returns. And there it is, a glimpse at the internal landscape of a leader: a maverick’s willfulness and a grandfather’s compassion all rolled into one.
Or, in another word: bravery. Because that’s exactly what the journey requires.
Cincinnati Works is located at 708 Walnut Street,Second Floor, Cincinnati, OH 45202. You can reach them at 513.744. WORK (9675). Visit their website at www.cincinnatiworks.org.