Reflections on a life of service
J. Barry Griswell talks about his evolution as a community leader
Friday, March 15, 2013 7:00 AM
Paying it forward
After receiving help himself as a child, J. Barry Griswell has donated countless hours and dollars to projects and groups to help others.
Started in 2008, the Harvest Initiative works on improving economic activity on the Crow Creek Sioux Reservation. Griswell said the project idea came about when his church hosted a guest who lectured about the poorest 20 counties in the country; Buffalo County, S.D., where the Crow Creek Reservation sits, was the poorest. “I thought, my goodness, how can something like this be going on so close to us in the United States,” Griswell said. Drake University law students Dustin Miller and Jason Yates volunteered to help spur economic development in the area, and Griswell happily funded their endeavors. “There are now 15 to 20 small businesses operating and they brought services back to the people who live there,” Griswell said.
Griswell’s involvement with United Way of Central Iowa started when he moved to Des Moines in the late 1980s. He chaired the 2002 capital campaign, is a member of United Way International’s India Leadership Committee, which works on raising money in the United States to start and support United Ways throughout India. The couple has given more than $1 million to United Ways. Griswell was named the 2003 recipient of the Tocqueville Society award, United Way of Central Iowa’s highest honor and an award his wife, Michele, received in 2012. In 2005, the two began the Griswell Family Challenge, which matched new and increased contributions to the Women’s Leadership Connection, a female giving circle that has donated more than $10 million to early childhood education in the last 10 years.
Griswell, along with retired Wells Fargo Home Mortgage Co-President Cara Heiden and Polk County Supervisor Angela Connolly, is chairing the long-term regional vision plan, which started in 2011. The ambitious project brings together business and governmental leaders from across Central Iowa to improve economic development and quality of life in Greater Des Moines.
While head of Principal Financial Group Inc., Griswell launched the efforts to begin work on the now-completed Principal Riverwalk. The $70 million project includes Brenton Skating Plaza, a multiuse trail system, Hub Spot and accompanying public artwork, and a pedestrian bridge that will be named after Iowa women, among other amenities.
J. Barry Griswell’s fingerprint is impressed on key efforts to improve Greater Des Moines, from the Evelyn K. Davis Center for Working Families and the attached C Fresh Market to the Principal Charity Classic and Capital Crossroads long-term vision plan.
Griswell and his wife, Michele, have donated countless hours and plenty of dollars to improve the lives of people inside and outside the state. The time and money Griswell has spent is noteworthy, but what makes his generosity most interesting is his motivation.
“My love for giving back is really because I was served,” he said.
The current CEO of the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines and the former CEO of Principal Financial Group Inc. didn’t have an easy beginning. He grew up in the wrong part of Atlanta, had an alcoholic father and even spent some time in juvenile hall.
But he overcame his hardships with help and encouragement from others. And now, after running a Fortune 500 company, raising a family and volunteering to lead a nonprofit in charge of $229 million in assets, Griswell’s view on giving back is clearer than ever.
Setting the foundation
Growing up, Griswell’s mother worked two jobs. She had to in order to put food on the table, he said. “The thing that caused the most trouble was what we did when she wasn’t around,” Griswell said.
Although he and his brother were never involved with gangs or drugs, he did get into trouble and spend some time in juvenile detention. “It’s not something I’m proud of,” he said.
It was around this time that he first walked into a Boys and Girls Club in Atlanta. The organization, designed to give kids like Griswell hope and a place to learn, taught him how to box and play basketball. Leaders encouraged him even when his team lost.
He eventually received a scholarship to play basketball at Berry College in Rome, Ga. He met the love of his life, Michele, there and discovered that he had a knack for business, which pushed him to get an M.B.A. from Stetson University in Florida.
Griswell saw firsthand how social services can affect individuals and a community. His time at the Boys and Girls Club set a firm foundation for what he would accomplish later in his life.
But he admits that giving back wasn’t a high priority when he was younger. He was focusing on his career and starting a family.
“But then I came to Principal and it was expected,” he said.
Focused by Principal’s culture of service
When he first arrived in Des Moines in 1988, Griswell said, his bosses at Principal encouraged him to get involved and suggested that he look into United Way of Central Iowa.
“That was the turning point,” he said. While volunteering at a Latino resource center, he said, he saw himself in many of the young children he was helping. “I knew that I needed to do more,” he recalled. “I needed to pay it forward.”
He hasn’t looked back since.
In 2002, Griswell chaired United Way’s capital campaign and led the company when it donated $1 million -- the highest corporate donor level -- for the first time. He said he’s proud of how Principal’s involvement with United Way has flourished since his time there.
“The foundation at Principal is already laid; it’s each CEO’s job to keep moving it forward,” he said. “Getting involved and giving back is just as important as making money and serving customers.”
Partners in service
But Griswell doesn’t just push his employees to do more. He pushes himself, too. Although he notes that he seldom achieves anything on his own.
Michele’s name can almost always be found beside his, and their leadership efforts often run parallel. While Griswell was off chairing the United Way campaign, Michele was helping create the nonprofit organization’s Women’s Leadership Connection. While Griswell helped accommodate the golfers participating in The Principal Charity Classic, Michele spent time with their wives.
Married for 43 years, the two are a true power couple, financing projects across the spectrum.
They founded the Harvest Initiative, aimed at improving the economic conditions and educational opportunities for the Crow Creek tribe in South Dakota; are part of a group of leaders that support United Way organizations in India; and have donated more than $1 million to early childhood education.
“He and Michele are a true partnership,” said Allison Fleming, former chairman of the Community Foundation. “They make a wonderful team and have supported, either financially or through their leadership, so many projects.”
A smart investment
After retiring from Principal in 2008, Griswell took on the top job at the Community Foundation rather than working on his golf game.
“I really take pride in what the organization has accomplished in the last five years,” he said. “They had the money and the talent, but now I think we really found our heart. We learned that we can make a bigger difference by being collaborative.”
One of the nonprofit organization’s most recent collaborations is the Evelyn K. Davis Center, which opened in August 2012 and helps people who are struggling to re-enter the workforce. The Community Foundation partnered with Des Moines Area Community College and its president, Rob Denson; United Way of Central Iowa; and Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino to get the project up and running.
Another huge component of the project is the C-Fresh grocery store, a major service that was missing from the neighborhood near Sixth and University avenues since Top Value Foods closed in 2004.
“The people in that neighborhood needed a champion,” Fleming said. “Barry Griswell and Rob Denson were willing to be that.”
Kristi Knous, president of the Community Foundation, said Griswell helped reposition the Community Foundation as the go-to place for causes and issues.
And though his expertise and perspective have been immensely beneficial to growing the Community Foundation, Knous said that the biggest effect he had on her life was something a bit more personal.
“He was very supportive of my desire to continue my education,” she said. Knous, who received a master’s degree in public administration from Drake University in 2010, said she went to Griswell with the idea shortly after he started. “If he hadn’t embraced that, I probably wouldn’t have done it,” she said.
Griswell will be stepping down as CEO this summer. He’s not sure what is in store for the next phase of his and Michele’s lives, but he said they’re open to anything: “Who knows; maybe we’ll move to Africa? No, I don’t think we’ll do that, but you never know what might happen.”
Odds are, whatever that adventure may be, it will involve helping others.
“I lost a lot of money in 2008 and 2009, like so many other people,” he said. “But the investments I’ve made in people – those are the best investments because you can never lose those.”