Carrying on a contractor's legacy

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Bronco fans owe a great deal to Gerald H. Phipps.

In the early 1960s, the Colorado commercial builder and his brother purchased a controlling interest in the Broncos after owner Rocky Mountain Empire Sports threatened to move the football team out of Colorado. They saved the day for diehard Denver football devotees and bought themselves a permanent seat in the stands.

“When he and his brother owned the team, they didn’t miss a game,” said Cris Goldy, Phipps’ grandson and a project manager with Gerald H. Phipps General Contractors.

“My grandfather loved baseball, too.” Goldy said when Phipps negotiated the Broncos deal it included ownership of the Denver Bears, a minor league baseball team. “Some prominent major league players came through that Denver team, like Bill Martin, Bill Freehand and Goose Gossage,” Goldy said.

Twenty years later, Phipps sold the Broncos to Edgar Kaiser who, three years later, sold the team to current owner Pat Bowlen.

Gerald H. Phipps died of cancer in 1993, but his legacy lives on and his family’s influence in Colorado has been about much more than football and baseball.

The Phipps Colorado heritage began with Lawrence Phipps, Gerald Phipps’ father, who moved west after working for Andrew Carnegie in the steel business. Lawrence Phipps eventually became a Colorado senator, but his impact on Colorado was rooted in the Great Depression. John Gibbs, a 23-year employee and the marketing manager for Gerald H. Phipps General Contractors, recalled a family story Gerald Phipps relayed many times.

During the Depression, when people were losing the shirts off their back, Lawrence Phipps decided to build his mansion in Denver – a mansion that Phipps eventually donated to Denver University. Gibbs said that Phipps was determined to employ as many people as he could to help them keep food on their tables and a roof over their heads. “Gerry always talked about how affected he was by his father’s decision to build the mansion during that time,” he said.

Lawrence Phipps handed over that same spirit of compassion and community to his son, and Gerald Phipps used his father’s gift of passion for humankind to create one of Colorado’s most successful and favorable commercial contracting companies, Gerald H. Phipps General Contractors.

The company was born out of another family alliance. Gibbs said that in the 1940s Phipps went to work for his uncle, Platte Rogers, who owned a construction company, based in Pueblo. Rogers also had an office in Colorado Springs and Denver, and asked Phipps to be president of the Denver division. A few years later, Rogers sold the Denver division to Phipps. Eight years later, Rogers retired and closed the Pueblo and Springs offices, and Phipps expanded his Denver operation to the Pikes Peak Region.

From the beginning of his venture, Gibbs said that Phipps’ entire purpose (much like his father’s) was to have a company where he could “put people to work and construct projects that would benefit the community.”

Like many contractors back in the good ole’ days, a handshake was enough to seal any deal. Things changed, and written contracts became the norm. Gibbs remembered a contract situation where Phipps relied on his instincts and the “handshake” way of thinking. A few contractors were involved with a Jefferson County School District project, and most of them expressed concerns at a meeting about the language in the contract. “Not Gerry,” Gibbs said. “He stood up and said, ‘I don’t care what the language is, we’ll sign the contract – we know we are working for Jefferson County.'” Gibbs said it caused a bit of angst with the other contractors, but to this day there has never been a problem with Jefferson County projects.

“He’s a contractor who cared about his community,” Gibbs said. “He was a consummate gentleman and represented the highest level of integrity. He virtually attempted to know everyone’s name, all the people on the job sites. He was a very humble individual; you felt special in his presence; you felt comfortable.”

His grandson, Goldy, felt strong enough about being in his grandfather’s presence that he began working for Gerald Phipps during the summers, following in his mother’s footsteps. One of Phipps three daughters, Karen Sass, worked for her father’s business until retiring about three years ago. When her son finished school in 1991, he went to work full time for the company, and is now managing one of its main projects in Denver, The Children’s Hospital.

“I’ve been around this business all my life, and I really wanted to work with my grandfather,” Goldy said. “He felt responsible to people because of who he was in the community. He not only knew all of his worker’s names, but he could go out on a job site and know the names of the wives and the number of kids everyone had.” Goldy said Phipps was as easy mingling with his employees as he was with fellow Penrose-St. Francis board members or Colorado College administrators.

Phipps’ employees meant enough to him that his salaried workers became owners in the company after his death. “He took out a life insurance policy that paid the estate for the value of the company, which allowed for a smooth transfer of ownership, from Gerry to the employees,” Gibbs said.

After Phipps death, the company set up an employee stock option program, said Kevin Barden, another 23-year employee and the vice-president of field operations. Barden reiterated the sentiments of Gibbs and Goldy. It was all about the employees, he said. “His philosophy was to have a company that gave people jobs, to help the economy,” Barden said. “He was a man of integrity, totally honest and straight forward. There is a loyalty that develops out of that kind of leadership. Most of the other people who work for this company feel the same.” Some of the carpenters at Gerald Phipps have been there for 30 years, Barden said.

Phipps employees were a priority along with his philanthropic focus and a desire to build projects that would benefit the community. Many of Phipps commercial contracts have been associated with the medical industry and education, from kindergarten through college. “He’s been dead for 11 years, and we still live by that,” Barden said. “We don’t build jails and prisons.”

What they do build has been significant to Colorado’s structural landscape for the past 54 years. Gerald Phipps has maintained an office in the Springs since 1960, and the company has built a few landmarks in the area, like the Holly Sugar building, the Colorado Springs Airport, the Antlers Plaza, Penrose Hospital and the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. Up north, notable Phipps projects have included the Denver Museum of Science and Nature’s planetarium and space addition, the concrete for INVESCO Field, the Denver Botanical Gardens and Castle Pines Country Club.

Phipps also has constructed many buildings on the Colorado College Campus and the two housing facilities at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. The second housing complex on the UCCS campus opened last August. Phipps has been involved with many K through 12 area building projects, including five schools for Academy School District 20. The company is scheduled to complete a District 20 400,000 square-foot facility that sits on about 80 acres in the fall 2007. The new school will serve about 2,800 students.

Phipps also is building a 48,000 square-foot laboratory facility for Colorado Springs Utilities, with an expected March 2005 completion date.

Gerald Phipps contracts range in price from $1,000 to $350 million, Barden said. The latter figure reflects the company’s biggest project that is currently under way – a new children’s hospital being built on the old Fitzsimmons Hospital site in Denver. Goldy said construction on the 1 million-square-foot hospital building, which replaces the existing children’s hospital in Denver, will end in October 2007.

“We’ve added a lot to Colorado and to this community,” Barden said. “We’ve been in the Springs for 45 years, and our goal is to be here another 45 years. The company will remai
n Gerald Phipps for as long as we are in existence.

“There are not enough words to describe Mr. Phipps. His tradition carries on today, and it is our goal to maintain his legacy.”

- Marylou.Doehrman@csbj.com