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Griswell leads United Way campaign with passion


Earlier this fall, J. Barry Griswell peered into the faces of economically disadvantaged youths who had been invited to the Principal Financial Group Inc., where he is the chief executive, and saw in their eyes a reflection of his younger self – a kid without direction who might never have graduated from high school if someone hadn’t cared.

“I saw myself there,” Griswell, the chairman of United Way of Central Iowa’s 2002 fund-raising campaign, said of the youths who had been invited to Principal’s corporate offices as part of the company’s participation in the charity’s Day of Caring activities. “I thought, ‘That’s me, 40 years ago.'”

Griswell isn’t shy about telling potential United Way donors that he grew up tough on Atlanta’s “bad side,” that his maturation into a productive citizen was never a gaurantee. He’s candid about his childhood as he tries to connect people with a charity whose financial health is a leading indicator of the well-being of Greater Des Moines citizens.

“There was enormous opportunity to get into lots of trouble,” said Griswell, who was a latchkey kid before the term describing children of single parents was popularized. His parents divorced when he was young, and his mother worked several jobs to provide for he and his brother. Life in Atlanta is far away from his seat in Des Moines as president, chairman and CEO of Principal, a Fortune 500 company with $119.6 billion in assets under management, 15,900 employees and 13 million customers worldwide and offices around the world. Back then, his destiny seemed to be on the streets, not on Wall Street, where he rang the opening bell of the New York Stock Exchange a year ago after shepherding Principal through its demutualization and initial public offering.

Griswell doesn’t recall how he ended up at Atlanta’s Boys and Girls Clubs of America, a group that offers opportunities and companionship, an alternative to life on the street. “I got very involved in Boys Clubs of America and it became a very important part of my life,” he said. “Had it not been for Boys Club, my life would have been quite a bit different.”

There, the 6-foot, 9-inch Griswell learned to play basketball, a skill that later won him a scholarship to Berry College in northwestern Georgia. He led his 1971 Vikings varsity basketball team in both scoring and rebounding, but a sophomore economics class caused him to lose interest in his previous career goals – either professional sports, coaching or teaching – and nurture a growing love for business. He continued his education, earning an M.B.A. from Stetson University at Deland, Fla.

Griswell said he is proof of the power of charitable organizations. “I’m a good example of someone who has overcome their environment and hopefully become a reasonably productive citizen,” he said. “It’s frustrating when I hear people say that’s an environment they can’t get out of. Within each of us is opportunity.”

But today, he says, the stakes are higher and the need for the services United Way agencies provide is more urgent than when he was a youth. Serious trouble lurks at every juncture for young people who look for diversion on the streets or other unsupervised areas. “I had a year or two,” he said of the time he had to make positive lifestyle choices. “Today, it probably wouldn’t take but a week or a month, and you are gone.”

However open and enthusiastic Griswell is about the power of agencies supported by United Way to improve lives, humility prevents him from viewing his life as extraordinary or remarkable. He downplays everything, from his personal financial commitment of $100,000 to United Way – “It’s easy for me because I make a lot of money,” he said, emphasizing that the smaller contributions of others may represent a greater personal sacrifice – to a career path that catapulted him to Principal’s top job.

“A lot of people who went to Berry College ended up being teachers, missionaries and social workers,” he said, repeating the remarks he made during a commencement speech at his alma mater last spring. “I wouldn’t want to be equated as more important; they are the ones who ought to be getting the recognition.”

As chairman of United Way’s $16 million fund-raising campaign, Griswell helped craft this year’s theme, “let’s get personal.” It is meant to reflect the thousands of personal stories of United Way’s mored than 50,000 donors who give an average of $170 a year to the charity, most of them quietly and anonymously. The slogan also mirrors Griswell’s own experiences with agencies supported by United Way.

“He makes it personal,” United Way of Central Iowa President Martha Willits said. “He has the current and way-back-in-life experiences to see things through the eyes of a child.”

Many of the nearly 70 agencies United Way supports seek to improve the lives of children and families.

Griswell hadn’t given much thought to the ways the charity had influenced his life until he became involved raising money for the United Way, an umbrella organization whose structure allows it to cut administrative costs and put more dollars directly into the hands of service providers.

Then he remembered his volunteer work with Big Brothers Big Sisters America in New Jersey in the early 1980s. He became a “big brother” for a 12-year-old boy whose parents had been killed when they were walking down the street with their children. It was an opportunity for him to give back some of the support he had received as a youth, but Griswell said he had “never connected with it being a United Way agency.”

A not-so-distant memory, he says, is the hospice services his family received when his father-in-law was dying of Parkinson’s Disease in Florida last spring. He had thought of hospices in generic terms, as places where terminally ill patients went to die. He hadn’t considered the breadth of end-of-life services – everything from respite care for family members to grief counseling- offered by Hospice of Central Iowa, a United Way agency. It hadn’t yet occurred to him that he was a United Way consumer.

“I thought it was for poor people with medical problems,” he said, almost apologetically, “not for people like me.”

Now, he said, “It’s one of the most significant organizations I know.”

Griswell said it’s important to develop a multiyear fund-raising campaign that beats its own record year after year. Last year, Greater Des Moines was No. 2 among communities its size in United Way contributions. “What we are trying to do is build something that is sustainable,” he said. “You can’t just have a great campaign for 2002. You also have to build for the future.”

Despite the demands of his job at Principal, Des Moines largest insurer and the nation’s largest 401(k) plan administrator, Griswell accepted the challenge of leading the United Way campaign with zealous enthusiasm and without a moment of hesitation. “I believe passionately in United Way and it’s my turn,” he said. “This is not dragging me off to do something that I don’t want to do.”

One of the rewards is the comparative instant gratification executives don’t often receive in business. “Every CEO and business leader is involved in so many things that take years to see the fruits of your labor,” he said. “It’s hard to change the direction of a big company quickly, but the good thing about United Way is, every year you have a new campaign strategies to put in place.”

Griswell is appealing to large, small and medium-sized corporations and individuals to give amounts commensurate to their wealth. “There are a lot of people out there who could give $5,000, $10,000 or $50,000 that we want to reach,” he said. “United Way is more than just a name; the ‘United’ part is significant. It unites every segment of the community, big and small businesses, men and women, old and young, immigrants and minorities.”

His own $100,000 contribution shows he’s not just paying lip service to the campaign. He joins an elite list – of one. Until Griswell and his wife, Michele, a $2,500 donor to United Way’s Women’s Leadership Initiative for Early Childhood, made their contribution, Des Moines philanthropist Maddie Levitt was the charity’s only $100,000 donor. “I figured Maddie needed a little company,” Griswell said. “I figured I ought to be willing to do it.”

Principal also has announced it will match employees’ contributions dollar for dollar, bringing the corporation’s total contribution to more than $3 million, Griswell said.

His friend Lynn Horak, chairman and CEO of Wells Fargo Bank Iowa, said the energy Griswell devotes to the United Way campaign springs from a deep reservoir of faith. “He always finds time to take care of people in need,” Horak said. “That speaks volumes about the kind of person he is.”

Horak said Griswell’s leadership skills, practiced daily at the state’s largest employer, have helped keep the charity on track to meet its $16 million goal in spite of a lingering recession and the uncertainty caused by terrorism and the upcoming elections.

“What an extraordinary time to show that leadership,” Horak said. “Barry’s brought out the best in the community, during difficult economic times, troubling times across the country. He’s very genuine, very sincere and has a great sense about people, what they need and who they are. Most important, he makes people feel valued.”

The community campaign continues through Dec. 10 and is about halfway to meeting its goal.

“The outcome of our campaign can be directly attributed to the quality of leadership Barry has provided,” Willits said. “He’s stunning, really, a very strong leader with a warm personal touch. It’s a wonderful combination: He’s tenacious, but has a huge heart and capacity to see the real human side of the effort.”

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