He's a good sport at home and work

January 4, 2009
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But as he grew a bit older, he said, the demands imposed by a business that never closes its doors began to wear on him. And the pay wasn’t that great, either, especially for a guy who had just gotten married. So he and his bride looked to leave Chicago for Michigan. He got a job offer here and they moved to the northeast side of Grand Rapids. Then that offer fell through. But they loved the city and stayed.

Then Guswiler found employment at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel and that job led him to a sales position at the Grand Rapids/Kent County Convention and Visitors Bureau, one he held for seven years. The change from selling a product to selling a destination intrigued him in that he was still working with the hotel industry but on a somewhat grander scale. He said he found the CVB work was more to his calling and that he got pleasure and satisfaction from marketing the region.

“But I think my biggest break came when the West Michigan Sports Commission was formed,” said Guswiler, now the organization’s first and only executive director.

Kent County drove the commission’s creation through Commission Chairman Roger Morgan, County Commissioner Dick Vander Molen and County Assistant Administrator Wayman Britt. An executive committee was formed and a national search for an executive director was conducted. At the time, Guswiler said he was looking for an opportunity that would let him grow, but didn’t want to leave the area to find it. So he thought long and hard about applying for the new sports commission position.

“I spoke with Steve Wilson, who at the time was president of the CVB, and George Helmstead, who is the current VP of sales, about growth opportunities; how could I become more challenged. So they were fully aware that I wanted to do that,” he said.

“When the sports commission came along, I thought about putting my name in for consideration and approached Steve and George about that to make sure that they were comfortable with it.”

When Guswiler threw his hat into the commission’s ring, the committee already had a lot of resumes to go through. But he had experience in luring sporting events here as the CVB’s Midwest director of sports marketing. He also had attended sports tradeshows and made a number of contacts in the industry. In fact, he was at a national conference with Vander Molen and Britt when the commission was being formed.

“I really enjoyed having the opportunity to sit down and talk with these two gentlemen. They have two very different styles, but I really felt comfortable working with them in that small, strategic way. The CVB and the sports commission were going to work in alignment, anyhow,” said Guswiler.

“When I got back, I thought more about it. I thought that is a good reason right there why I should put my name in,” he said of the affiliation between the two agencies.

It’s anti-climatic to write that Guswiler got the job, but he did. And he said he felt a tad overwhelmed when he was named to the post in May 2007.

“It was a breaking point, or a great opportunity, in my career to even be considered. I went home that night thinking ‘wow.’ This is a group of community leaders that are well respected in their own rights,” he said of the people who chose him.

“Like any new position that you move into, there’s a learning curve for all parties involved. It’s been exciting. It’s been fun. It’s been overwhelming, but we’ve done some great things and there are a lot of things on the horizon.”

Guswiler, the sixth of seven boys in his family, was born in Grosse Pointe and lived there into his middle-school years before he moved to Petoskey. His parents divorced and his mom took the three youngest sons, which included him, north to the city where the family had vacationed and where she had relatives.

“I moved up there with my mom to continue my middle school and attend high school in northern Michigan in Petoskey,” he said.

After graduating high school, Guswiler moved to Mount Pleasant and earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Central Michigan University. He said he enjoyed his years at CMU, but also admitted that he really wasn’t sure what to expect when he got there.

“It’s interesting when you’re a kid and looking at where you’re going to go. I think you can almost associate it with pulling out the darts game and throwing a dart. I didn’t do a lot of investigating of what curriculum I wanted to get into, or what career I wanted to get into, or what majors some of these universities offer. My oldest brother went to Central, so I had some familiarity with it, and I had a friend going there, so I thought ‘I’m going to apply, too,’” he said.

“We both planned on being walk-ons on the soccer team. We played soccer together at Petoskey High School. So that’s what kind of narrowed it down for me. In hindsight, I would have liked to investigate some other options, but Central is a great school and continues to be. They do some terrific things and have a great football program right now.”

He didn’t play soccer for CMU, but did play in the school’s intramural league.

Guswiler and his wife, Julie, live in Plainfield Township with their four children. They’ve been married for 15 years. Julie was an insurance representative before she became a full-time mom to one daughter and three sons. Olivia is the oldest at 13 and she loves to ride horses.

“She has been involved with a couple of different organizations. One she volunteers for is the Equestrian Center for Therapeutic Riding in the Rockford area. My wife got her involved in horseback riding at a ranch in Cedar Springs and she really enjoys that. I think she’d like to get into some equestrian riding, if the opportunity avails itself,” he said.

Ian is next at 11. Four-year-old Owen, and Pierce, who turns 3 this month, round out the Guswiler’s starting lineup.

“They’re currently head of the household, as it were,” he said of the kids with a smile. “I don’t envy Julie at all. She has a far tougher job than I have.”

A cousin of Julie’s introduced the two. Well, almost. He was in metro Detroit at the time, while Julie lived in Chicago back then, about 18 years ago. Both were planning to be at the same holiday party so the cousin told him that she would hook them up. But she apparently forgot to tell Julie of her plan and never mentioned Mike to her. He didn’t know that.

“I knew she was coming to this party. I knew what she looked like. When she walked in the door I fully expected a ‘Hi’ and we’d get to know each other. But she walked right past me. And I soon found out she hadn’t really set it up with Julie that we’d be meeting. But we did end up getting together and talking a lot,” he said.

Olivia and Ian play lacrosse; dad coaches. He has coached kids’ soccer for quite a few years and is still learning the delicate intricacies of lacrosse, going into his second season as an assistant coach. The Guswilers camp in the summer, mostly at the state parks in Muskegon and Petoskey, and ski and snow board their winters away at Cannonsburg.

“I was fortunate to get my 4-year-old out on some skis last year and I anticipate getting my youngest out, as well. Hopefully, we’ll make a trip out west as a family,” he said.

After he finished Leadership Grand Rapids, Guswiler also completed Leadership West Michigan. Offered by the West Michigan Chamber Coalition, he said the program was an insightful way to learn about the region’s interdependencies and collaborative efforts, and, sometimes, the area’s glaring lack of cooperation.

“It’s just a great program and I got to meet a lot of wonderful people,” he said.

Guswiler hopes to meet many more wonderful people this year as he directs the sports commission, which includes Events Manager Eric Engelbarts and Executive Administrative Assistant Natalie Rose, into its second full calendar year of trying to draw youth and amateur events here.

He feels that the new organization has quickly and efficiently established a foothold in what is largely a new niche for the region’s hospitality industry and, at the same time, made positive contributions to the economy, the area’s image and West Michigan’s quality of life. He sees that progress continuing this year, despite a gloomy financial forecast for the state.

“We’ve got some great successes that we’re building on. I think 2008, and the six months that we operated in 2007, have built a great foundation that we can work from,” he said.

“I see 2009 as the year that we can be successful in marketing ourselves as a premier youth and sports destination. Given the economy that we’re in, all industries are affected. But I feel pretty good about the fact that people still want to see their kids be active. They want to see them compete. They want to see them learn the wonderful attributes they get from competing in various sports. …With that respect, I see this industry as still being effective, still having opportunities, and we’re going to reach out and secure some of those.”

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