Meet the North Van plumber who gave away $25 million

EMPIRE OF PIPES | Paul Myers stands near the Keith Plumbing and Heating office on the North Vancouver waterfront

Paul Myers may not have the profile of a Jimmy Pattison or Bob Lee, but the unprecedented donation from the (until now) unknown businessman is inspiring a whole new generation of givers

Paul Myers did not want any “hullabaloo” made over his $25-million donation to a new patient care centre at Lions Gate Hospital in North Vancouver. The 82-year-old owner of Keith Plumbing and Heating doesn’t like speaking in public. But Judy Savage, president of the Lions Gate Hospital Foundation, convinced him that a press conference about his gift—the largest-ever individual donation to a B.C. hospital foundation—would help Lions Gate draw attention to its fundraising campaign. Myers considers Savage “a terrific woman,” and reluctantly agreed.

So there he was inside a large room at the hospital on a Thursday morning last September, facing a throng of reporters wielding television cameras and tape recorders, delivering a speech that Savage had written for him. He talked about wanting to give back to the community where he had lived for 80 years, and at one point was overcome with tears. Savage had suggested that he park his yellow company truck at the hospital so it was visible for the cameras. “When the nightmare was over, I climbed into my truck and headed back to the office,” he recalls from the corner suite of Keith Plumbing in North Vancouver. “Then she phoned and said, ‘Sorry, Paul, you’ve got to get back here: CBC was late and they want to make a live television broadcast.’”

Myers dutifully went back to his truck, drove to the hospital and got wired for the cameras all over again. “I’m standing out there and I thought, ‘What the hell have I done to myself?’”

There was no similar question about what Paul Myers did for Lions Gate. The impact of the unexpected gift from this self-described “little plumber” was immediate: for weeks after the press conference, people came into the foundation’s office and made donations, crediting Myers as the inspiration. Many people even told Savage that they would encourage their children to become plumbers. Myers’s $25 million is the first instalment toward a new $100-million patient care facility at the hospital.

It’s easy to see why Myers—whose company has worked on many hospitals, including additions at Lions Gate—chose a brand-new building as the target of his philanthropy. He intimately understands the problems of aging infrastructure that the current patient tower, now 55 years old, suffers. There is no air conditioning on most floors, and it has as many as four patients in a room, making the spread of infection very difficult to contain. The new modern facility will be the third phase of a redevelopment plan; phase one of the plan was the recently completed Greta and Robert H.N. Ho Psychiatry and Education Centre (the Hope Centre), while phase two will be a new outpatient care centre and atrium. (The existing tower has been renamed the Paul Myers Tower, with that name transferring to the new one as well.)


(From left) Mike Nader, VCH-Coastal chief operating officer; Lions Gate Hospital Foundation president Judy Savage; and Paul Myers
(From left) Mike Nader, VCH-Coastal chief operating officer; Lions Gate Hospital Foundation president Judy Savage; and Paul Myers


According to Savage, very large donations like Myers’s are more frequent in recent years—a trend she attributes to an aging demographic that has accumulated wealth and wants to leave a legacy. In 2005, Jimmy Pattison donated $5 million for a new emergency department at Lions Gate, and in 2011 Robert and Greta Ho donated $10 million to establish the Hope Centre. But Myers’s gift came out of the blue. “If you had asked people a year ago who they thought might donate $25 million to Lions Gate Hospital,” says Savage, “I don’t think anybody would have mentioned Paul Myers.”

Savage says she was first contacted by Myers’s financial advisor, who told her that his client wanted to make a significant donation. Action came swiftly: about a year later, Myers was in front of the cameras. The donation is contingent on certain milestones—including the completion of a concept brief that Vancouver Coastal Health will provide the Ministry of Health (with information such as where the tower will be located and how much it will cost)—but Savage says that Myers’s gift has fast-tracked development by several years. If all goes well, construction could start by 2020.

While not known to the general public, Myers is described by many in the construction industry as an elder statesman—with a sterling reputation for both his company and his advocacy efforts for training and working conditions. He bought Keith Plumbing and Heating in 1970 and built it from its original focus on the single-family residential market into one of the largest mechanical contractors in B.C. The company has completed several complex institutional projects, including the patient care centre addition at Victoria’s Royal Jubilee Hospital (a $46-million contract), the Chevron expansion at Vancouver International Airport ($16 million) and the RCMP E Division headquarters in Surrey ($34.5 million). In 1986, Myers started Keith Panel Systems, which designs, fabricates and installs architectural and rainscreen wall systems. He also runs a number of other real estate and investment companies. Last year, Myers’s companies employed a combined 327 people and had gross revenues of $95 million.

Myers has been recognized with countless industry awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Vancouver Regional Construction Association in 2006, an Industry Leaders Award from the B.C. Construction Labour Relations Association in 2013, and the Best Business Award from the North Vancouver Chamber of Commerce in 2011. “When word about the donation got out, it was like the BC Lions winning the Grey Cup,” says Clyde Scollan, president of the B.C. CLRA. “Everyone in the construction industry felt good.”

Outside the spotlight, Myers is every bit the unassuming titan. He is small, and slightly over his goal weight of 160 pounds, as he hasn’t been able to exercise since breaking seven ribs last winter. (He was salting his West Vancouver driveway at 6:30 a.m. and slipped.) He answers his own phone and welcomes visitors to his office with little formality (“Just call first,” he advises). According to the company’s chief estimator, Tony Kanjer, a four-decade Keith Plumbing employee, Myers is intensely aware of people’s feelings. “I don’t think he’s ever fired anybody,” he says. “I don’t think he could.”

If uncomfortable speaking in public, Myers is chatty and unguarded in private. From his second-floor office, he points out several other buildings that he owns. “Seemed to be wherever I went, I had a hankering to buy up the neighbours,” he says. “I’m old-fashioned though: we don’t borrow money. I sleep better that way.”

Myers started building his real estate portfolio with money from his paper route. He delivered the Vancouver Sun in Lynn Valley, earning a penny per paper. He bought a 33-by-120-foot lot for $250 in Lynn Valley when he was still a teenager with the proceeds from that route and started working at Keith Plumbing and Heating as an apprentice plumber when he was 19 or 20. (“You keep asking me dates,” he says. “I don’t want to be pinned down!”) While his father, a machinist, could fix anything, Myers claims not to be mechanically minded. He wasn’t a talented apprentice—instead staying late to finish a job and not telling anyone how long it took. Still, he was quickly promoted to foreman and then estimator. He didn’t like the way the owners were running the business, so he decided to set up his own and gave notice; in response, they offered him a management contract with an option to purchase. In 1970, Myers bought Keith Plumbing and Heating outright.

Around that time, strikes and lockouts involving the 15 unions of the B.C. construction industry were frequent. Along with other contractors, Myers helped found the B.C. CLRA, aimed at bringing stability to the industry. The association became a model for other provinces, and Myers became a well-respected negotiator. He recalls those days of contract talks, which would last for days and nights on end.

“You get to read people after a while,” he says, recalling watching the union leader pace back and forth during a marathon bargaining session. “I put my hand in my pocket and pulled out some change and put it on the table and said, ‘That’s all the money there is.’ Everybody laughed like hell. He knew the end was coming, but he didn’t know an honourable way to get at it.” It was about being fair, he says, but also about building rapport with the other side.

As he was trying to build his business, he faced other challenges. His wife, Millie, who died several years ago, was suffering from schizophrenia. He spent years trying to get medical help for her, taking her in and out of Riverview, and then raised his four children alone. One well-meaning cousin offered to adopt the youngest one. “He said, ‘You’re not going to make it, Paul,’” he recalls, suddenly struck with emotion. “I said, ‘I’ll make it.’” Today, he says his six grandchildren and one great-grandchild are the most important part of his life.

While Myers did not relish the public attention for his landmark donation to Lions Gate, he has enjoyed the smaller gestures of thanks. On his desk is a framed letter with an invitation for lunch from his former lawyer, Robert Jenkins, now a B.C. Supreme Court judge. The business manager of the plumbers and pipefitters union, Joe Shayler, took him out for breakfast and gave him a gold watch, the standard gift for 50 years in the union. And then there was a special note from a long-forgotten acquaintance with words of congratulations. “He wrote, ‘You probably don’t remember me, but you were my submanager when we delivered newspapers.’ That was neat. That was cute.”