Tom Phillips

Tom Phillips made his career in the computer business, but he also loved to fly.

“He described flying like you imagine an engineer would — with precision, care, and a deep awareness and respect of what could go wrong,” remembers Kurt Kolb, who worked with Phillips at Microsoft before launching a startup with him.

“You also got this sense of pure joy emanating from each and every word, though.  He could say, ‘I’ve had a really tough week and I need to spend some time in the air,’ in the same way that athletes say they need to run a few miles.”

Phillips, 52, a longtime Microsoft manager who joined almost a year ago, died Saturday in a single-engine plane crash in Michigan along with 29-year-old Joe Pann, according to Michigan State Police. Phillips had his pilot’s license, but Pann is described by authorities as the pilot of the plane.

In his 18-year Microsoft career, Phillips was no pushover, and he wasn’t afraid to step on toes if necessary to do things the way he believed was right. He displayed a unique combination of prowess and insight across business and technology, former colleagues say.

“You could find people at Microsoft with more technical knowledge or more business knowledge, but very few possessed the combined depth that he had in those two areas,” says Brad Carpenter, a former Microsoft GM who worked for Phillips. “He was always thinking, always pushing us for ideas, always, always pursuing patents. He could be tough, like any good leader and manager should, but he also always had a smile on his face.”

From his Microsoft career, Phillips is listed as an inventor on dozens of patents, in areas including computer hardware, security and storage.

He was “a good leader, a real innovator and an all-around great guy,” says Bryan Mistele, the INRIX CEO, who worked with him at Microsoft.

Michael Cherry, now an industry analyst at Kirkland-based Directions on Microsoft, also worked with Phillips during his time at the company, and says he “was truly one of the good guys, a straight shooter whose word was his bond.”

As a young man, Phillips went to school at University of Michigan before heading up IT and telecommunications for First Federal bank in the state.

He lived in Kirkland but also had a home on Michigan’s Mackinac Island, to which he was traveling when the crash took place. Cars aren’t allowed on the small island, which helps explain why Phillips knew so much about horses, colleagues say.

In the Seattle region, Phillips was active in the Catholic church, at Sacred Heart Parish in Clyde Hill and on the board of the Fulcrum Foundation, which supports Catholic schools in the Seattle Archdiocese.

Phillips started at Microsoft in 1992, working his way up to general manager for Windows Hardware a decade ago — overseeing the company’s strategic collaborations with PC makers as Windows XP took hold. He later focused on improving Microsoft’s foothold in developing nations, before leading the company’s Automotive Business Unit, an initiative that has led Microsoft to strike major technology deals with automakers.

“In nearly two decades at Microsoft, he was a respected leader across many different businesses,” said Lou Gellos, a Microsoft spokesman.

At a midyear business review at Microsoft a few years back, Kolb remembers sharing his “sinking realization” that sales to whitebox PC makers were under serious threat from low-cost PCs — warning that the company would lose a large portion of its revenue from this business unless it made major changes.

“This is pretty obvious now that it’s happened but at the time it was an incredibly controversial projection, with a lot of intractable sentiment around it, so there wasn’t a ton of career upside to propose change. But we both felt it was the right thing to do even if it resulted in a meltdown,” Kolb says. “Tom not only didn’t back away from the discussion, his team provided industry data that confirmed our suspicions and allowed us to model the revenue declines with incredible precision.”

Phillips left Microsoft to work on enterprise technology startup iTegris with Kolb in January 2010, and later joined, where he was general manager for the Windows Elastic Compute Cloud service inside Amazon Web Services.

“Our thoughts and deepest condolences go out to Tom’s family,” said spokeswoman Mary Osako. “Tom was a wonderful person and will be dearly missed by all of us.”

Carpenter, recently named CEO at Newline Software, remembers Phillips in particular for his role as a mentor, saying he went out of his way to help people.

“Even after he left Microsoft, he and I would get together for coffee. He was always available if I had a question. I last saw him about 2 months ago. I thought of sending him email last week on an issue, but then I realized what he would suggest, so I didn’t,” Carpenter says. “I so wish I had now.”

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  • Tim Eades

    Very sad indeed. Tom was a fantastic person -such a strategic thinker with an amazing combination of technical and business talent.

  • frank Cantwell

    Tom was a really great guy.  I will miss him sorely.  Frank Cantwell

  • Ed Soo Hoo

    I still remember him taking a meeting with me at 630a in the morning in his office at Microsoft…he was just making his instant hot oatmeal, smiling, full of energy and gave me great advice and insights.  Tom was a man of style and grace ~ and I will miss him.

  • Johngri

    Well written article. Tom was a great man.

  • Boni Weis

    Tom was everything mentioned in this article and more.  His tough prowess was cushioned with a soft and gentle firmness – he could lend a hand or a hug, depending on the need.  He incorporated opinions both up and down the chain of command – coming up with a logical and practical solution which represented the wisdom of the group.  So sad to lose such a great man – he deserved to have another 52 years…we have all suffered a great loss.

  • Reinette Murray

    Mr. Phillips was a member of our Catholic Church (St. Anne’s Parish) on Mackinac Island, MI.   He, his wife and family were a wonderful addition to Mackinac, from the moment they purchased their beautiful home on the “East Bluff”. He was involved in fund raisers for any project on MI including the church and always had a smile on his face when collecting money contributions during mass.  The accident is so tragic for the Phillips family as well as the Pann family.

  • Tgualdoni

    Memorial Education Fund for Axel, the son of Joe Pann (my son’s co-worker pilot) has been set up by my future daughter-in-law, checks can be sent to: First National Bank c/o Jacqueline Michels benefit for Andrea Pann, 132 N. State Street, St. Ignace, MI 49781. Thank you in advance…Tammy

  • Nick T.

    Truly unfortunate and sad news…  Tom was a great guy to work with and for…  Extremely bright and visionary…  He will be truly missed…

  • Derick Schaefer

    After years of not interacting with TomPh, I’m just learning of this great loss.

    I met Tom at MSFT in the Midwest and caught up with him regularly in Redmond. He was an inspiration and mentor to me in the software industry. The entire reason for me looking him up today is that in my current venture I’m revisiting topics Tom and I discussed a decade ago. Yes, his thinking was spot for topics like system scale and the visions he projected are exactly the way these topics are playing out today.

    Thank you for the great write up on TomPh. He will be missed.

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