Jonas Runs Ship Shape Event

July 26, 2002
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GRAND HAVEN — The job isn’t all that different, really, than when he ran an engineering and construction company.

Just like in business, Roger Jonas needs to constantly call on his skills in finance, strategic planning, marketing, organization, managing personnel and working with customers, as well as understand his core market and the overall mission of the organization.

“You’d better know who your customers are and what your customer base is,” said Jonas, the executive director of Grand Haven Coast Guard Festival Inc.

“The festival is, in effect, a business. We have a product,” he said.

That product is a 10-day festival that’s organized to honor the men and women of the U.S. Coast Guard and the agency’s involvement in Grand Haven, and draws thousands of visitors annually to the lakeshore community.

Jonas, the former president of CoroTech Inc. in Spring Lake, came out of semi-retirement in February to join the Coast Guard Festival. He sought the position after growing restless in semi-retirement and deciding he wanted to return to work, although he didn’t want to do “just anything.”

“I’ve been active all my life and involved all my life,” the 61-year-old Ferrysburg resident said. “There was still kind of a desire to get back in the thick of things.”

Jonas saw an opportunity when he read a newspaper ad seeking a new executive director for the festival. A 21-year resident of the area, Jonas had always enjoyed attending the festival and was involved in the community through volunteer work. He believed he was well-suited to run the organization.

“I thought this would be a fun way to cap off a career,” he said. “I like big events and I like working on multiple tasks at once. Having a lot of balls in the air and not dropping them, that’s a challenge.”

A Grand Ledge native with a background in sales and marketing, Jonas came to the area in 1981 when he joined CoroTech Inc. as vice president. He became president in 1989, a position he held until 1995, when he decided to slow down and sell his stake in the company.

He worked for five years as an independent consultant for Corrosion Probe Inc., a Connecticut firm involved in the paper and pulp mill industry. Jonas has known the company’s owner for years.

Serving as executive director of the Coast Guard Festival essentially brings Jonas full circle to the beginning of his career. While he worked on an MBA in international business at Michigan State University — where he also holds an undergraduate degree in marketing — Jonas served as director of the East Lansing Chamber of Commerce.

In returning to the nonprofit administration sector, he has been reminded of all the varying constituencies that are involved in the operation of a community-based organization. In the case of the Grand Haven Coast Guard Festival, that includes the organizing communities, a 23-member board of directors, numerous business sponsors and underwriters of the event, a volunteer staff of more than 200 people, and the U.S. Coast Guard on both a national and local level.

The festival, whose roots date back to 1924 when townspeople held a picnic for Coast Guard personnel stationed in Grand Haven, commemorates the Coast Guard’s birthday and salutes the service’s personnel.

Jonas said he was surprised at the number of events, both public and private, that are organized in conjunction with the festival, which draws many of the Coast Guard’s top brass as well as more than 1,000 active duty personnel and retirees, many of whom are attending reunions. While many people see the event as another summer festival, to organizers it is an affair whose highlight is the annual memorial ceremony honoring Coast Guard personnel who died in the past year and in 1943 when the cutter Escanaba, which was stationed in Grand Haven, sank in the North Atlantic during service in World War II.

“This is a command event for some of those people,” Jonas said. “It’s a huge responsibility. You have to do it right.”

In managing the event, organizers rely heavily on sponsors who see the festival as a way to showcase their local involvement and a unique venue to market their goods or services. Sponsorships, including a year-to-year deal with Ford Motor Co., now account for about half of the festival’s annual budget.

While the goal is to grow sponsorships and marketing partnerships, Jonas and organizers want to maintain a “delicate balance” so the event does not become too commercialized.

Jonas, just like he would if running a business, wants to make sure the festival keeps changing year to year to keep up with the tastes of those attending the event, yet maintain a focus on its mission and purpose.

“We have no designs or plans to make this thing bigger. Bigger is not better, but we can tweak the edges,” he said. “We can never lose our focus on what the origin of the festival is all about.” 

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