Ron Phillips’ colleagues describe him as a practical idealist who found a way to successfully cross-breed the principles of capitalism and philanthropy for the betterment of society.

The founder, president and CEO of the Brunswick-based community development corporation Coastal Enterprises Inc. plans to retire in May after nearly four decades on the job. Phillips grew up wanting to be a priest, but instead became one of the pioneers in a movement to cure social ills through economic development.

CEI was founded in 1977 with the goal of investing in small businesses, creating employment and developing Maine’s natural resource industries. Since then it has provided nearly $1.2 billion in financing to more than 2,500 small businesses, and created or preserved nearly 1,900 affordable housing units, 33,100 jobs and 5,800 child care slots for working families, according to its website.

CEI operates primarily in Maine and New England, but has several loans and investments around the United States.

Community development corporations, or CDCs, provide an economic boost to communities through a variety of means, including loans, venture capital, education, counseling, lobbying and community organizing. They often focus on the needs of struggling rural or urban communities.

“Ron is the conscience of the CDC movement,” Bill Bynum, CEO of Mississippi-based Hope Enterprise Corp., said at CEI’s annual meeting in March. “He is a deep, caring person who is making a difference.”

Former Maine Sen. George Mitchell said he learned early in his career as a federal lawmaker that Phillips is a tireless and persistent advocate for Maine and its people.

“Ever since I’ve known him, I’ve done whatever he told me to do,” Mitchell joked. “I’ve done pretty well for myself by following his orders.”

CHURCH INFLUENCE, ‘FAIR ECONOMICS’

Phillips, who tends to talk in long, meandering sentences, said the desire to create CEI was inspired in part by his participation in social and economic causes, including the civil rights movement, both as a student and while working for the Roman Catholic Church.

“A lot of what I became interested in, along with my peers, were social action, social change, economic issues, and it all led eventually, for me anyway, to the seminary in New York, where my studies were also, historically, in economics and religion,” he said. “So, how all our faiths as a community of people – interfaith, for that matter, Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, whatever – how that all leads to a human condition of something better than what the world was producing.”

He went on to work for the church in a variety of areas, including economic development and fair labor practices. One of the key concepts introduced to Phillips was what he calls “fair economics,” a framework for economic growth that benefits everyone, not just a lucky few.

Along the way, Phillips met his future wife, who is from Maine. It changed the direction of his life.

“She wanted to come back to Maine and so we moved here, and through some of my church connections and experiences in New York, I was asked to help organize a CDC. I didn’t know entirely what that was about, though it resonated because in my work with the churches, nationally and internationally, I had run into all of these grass-roots organizations all over the world.”

Phillips had encountered economic development groups around the globe that were effective in promoting various industries, such as agriculture, and he believed the model could be replicated in Maine. Unlike a typical, for-profit financial institution that invests to produce profits, its goal would be to help struggling communities and industries.

“Raising capital, investing in businesses – co-ops were also a strong feature at that time and they were for many years – everything to do with helping entrepreneurs and local community groups build some kind of economic enterprise,” he said.

With financial help from churches and other faith-based organizations, CEI was incorporated in 1977 in Bath. Its work initially centered on aquaculture, forestry, and small farms and fisheries.

In 1979, CEI made its first major investment – $300,000 to rebuild Boothbay Region Fish and Cold Storage after it burned down, establishing what has become a long-standing commitment to Maine’s fishing industry and the working waterfront.

CEI has gone on to champion numerous causes in its 39-year history, such as rural economic development, affordable child care, job opportunities for the disabled, the Maine New Markets Tax Credit Program, fighting against predatory mortgage lenders, and helping immigrants assimilate into the workforce.

It also has helped to grow hundreds of successful enterprises in Maine, including The Gelato Fiasco, Little River Flower Farm, The Press Hotel, Mayo Mill, GWI, Blue Ox Malthouse, Ouellette Family Dairy and Maine’s iconic Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland.

A LOSS, BUT ALSO NEW LEADERSHIP

In 2015, CEI consolidated a number of its offices to a new headquarters in Brunswick.

Most of CEI’s operations are not for profit, although it does have a for-profit, socially responsible venture capital subsidiary. Phillips said raising money is always a challenge, but colleagues said he has a special knack for getting donors to open up their wallets.

Sen. Angus King suggested that CEI has furthered Maine’s economic goals at times when lawmakers could not.

“For years I’ve been joking with Ron Phillips and calling CEI the government in exile in this state,” King said. “It’s hard for me to imagine Maine without CEI.”

CEI has chosen two executives to replace Phillips, Keith Bisson as president and Betsy Biemann as chief executive. Bisson is CEI’s senior vice president of program management and development. Biemann is a consultant to economic development organization FocusMaine who was president of the Maine Technology Institute from 2005 to 2012 and recently was a project director at Mossavar-Rahami Center for Business and Government at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Phillips said he believes it is time for new leadership at CEI, and that he is looking forward to spending more time with his family and “doing typical Maine things.”

“It’s time for me, and I’ve been doing this at CEI probably much too long,” he said. “There are great people here and fresh energy and even ideas. We got ourselves into this more productive environment (in Brunswick), hopefully, and we’ve got a good team, so CEI’s in pretty good shape as far as all that stuff goes. We have a good brand nationally and in Maine, I think. Others can now take it to another level of growth and impact.”

Officials who spoke at CEI’s March meeting said they hope Phillips continues his work as an advocate for Maine after his retirement.

“I’ve been so impressed by Ron’s commitment to bringing economic development to communities and businesses that are often left behind,” said U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree. “I’m not going to say goodbye, Ron, because I hope you’re not going far away.”