Inside Track and Nonprofits

Inside Track: A heart for leadership and helping the hungry

Brewster Hamm, president and CEO of Senior Meals, is energized by people, projects and worthy goals.

April 4, 2014
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Brewster Hamm is concerned about hunger in Kent County, where 17,000 people now struggle with that issue. Photo by Matt Radick
Brewster Hamm knows there are a number of for-profit businesses and nonprofit organizations squirming in a mire of problems that threaten their future.

Some of those problems are due to a fear of making a change. Hamm has a reputation for kicking status quo to the curb.

“I’m not a person satisfied in a maintenance role,” he said. “What gets my juices flowing is making things better.”

“Better” includes a strong altruistic streak that courses through the Detroit native.

“I think we make our future, whether it is positive or negative. We need to have faith that it’s going to work,” Hamm said. “We can make a lot of money making booze, but is it going to help mankind?”

 

BREWSTER HAMM
Organization:
Brewster Group; Senior Meals Program Inc.
Position: Owner/Principal; President and CEO
Age: 66
Birthplace: Detroit
Residence: Cascade Township
Family: Four sons and seven grandchildren
Business/Community Involvement: Board president, Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness; volunteer fundraiser, Heart of West Michigan United Way; past executive board member, Citizens League of Grand Rapids.
Biggest Career Break: Working at American Can Co., where he cut his teeth in labor relations negotiations and developed solutions for improving production.

 

Clearly, Hamm has dedicated a significant share of his life to the latter. These days, he divides his time as principal of the strategic organizational consulting firm Brewster Group, board president of the Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness in Lansing and, as of last year, president and CEO of the nonprofit Senior Meals Program Inc. after serving as its interim president and CEO.

Hamm honed his leadership acumen through a variety of senior management and consulting positions with companies that include Steelcase Inc., American Natural Resources, Babcock & Wilcox and American Can Co.

With the Brewster Group, his focus is on coaching senior managers who have development needs and helping organizations in need of troubleshooting.

Solving serious problems may involve implementing what Hamm said are six key elements of healthy and effective organizations: developing a healthy environment for people to work and grow; a strong leadership team that functions as a high performance team and models positive behaviors; establishing a culture of excellence, professionalism and discipline in everything; clarity around the organization’s mission; compunction of an organization’s decisions, challenges and successes; and procedures that complement the values, mission and goals while reinforcing a healthy environment.

“One thing I’ve learned: to be effective in leadership you need to have a heart for it and a connection bigger than we are,” said Hamm. “That makes it easier to have a passion and energy for the causes you work for. Once people get the six elements of a healthy organization, four things begin to happen: trust, effectiveness, converging goals and an understanding of a mission greater than me.”

Hamm learned a sobering truth from the Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness, a nonprofit membership organization that’s an association of emergency shelters, transitional housing programs, nonprofit housing and service programs, government programs and concerned citizens from across the Michigan: There are many people who are a hair’s breadth away from not having a roof over their heads.

“What I’ve learned is, any of us in life could be in that situation,” said Hamm. “It can happen if you don’t have health insurance and have a terrible accident, or if the family business went under.”

Hamm was drawn, in part, to Senior Meals because it fuels the leadership acumen he possesses for making a positive change. But in the case of Senior Meals, “positive” needs to be tempered.

Last summer, while he was still acting president, Senior Meals cut back, and about 250 clients were served only one daily meal — an entrée dinner. That number represents about 12 percent of all seniors the program serves annually, which cost $15,000 a month.

“The meals were over and above our financial resources,” Hamm said. “Through our assessment, we wanted to see if we could cut 7,000 meals a month without putting anyone in dire straits, by checking with family members.”

Sixty-five percent of Senior Meals’ $3.8 million operating budget comes from federal, state and local support, and the remaining 35 percent from fundraising efforts including individual donations and fundraising events. 

That support hopefully will include voters approving the Kent County Senior Millage on Aug. 5, a portion of which would be dedicated to Senior Meals, Hamm said.

Currently, 5,500 senior adults in Kent County receive a meal through its Senior Meals on Wheels program, and more than 100,000 congregate meals are served at 11 locations in the county, including low-income senior housing complexes and senior centers. Many who receive meals are low income (82 percent), while others live alone (54 percent).

Senior Meals also has a pantry program started in 1998, where clients 60 and older who meet income requirements may go to one of three locations in Kent County up to twice per month to select from a variety of food items equaling $80-$100 in groceries per month. A $2 donation is requested.

The need to feed an increasing number of older adults will only increase — and so will the need for additional revenue, said Hamm. Between 2000 and 2014, requests for meals from those 60 and older living in Kent County increased 30 percent. And that’s just for starters.

Farther down the road is another concern: The number of senior adults living in Kent County is projected to double in 20 years, from 100,000 to 200,000, mainly due to retiring baby boomers. The assumption is that requests for Senior Meals dinners also will swell.

“We’re concerned that there will not be enough food for people to eat,” said Hamm. “There’s a hunger issue in America and Kent County. One in six seniors struggle with hunger or nutrition, nationally. In Kent County, 17,000 struggle with that issue.”

When he’s not working, Hamm is an adventurer and avid sailor. Seven years ago, he and his son, Peter, planned to hike a 14-mile trail on St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands. His son was unable to join him, so Hamm walked it alone. He still remembers it well. “It was the most strenuous, one-day experience,” he said. 

But hiking through the island’s flora and fauna paid off. “I went back into the jungle and saw a stone wall by a waterfall (with) hieroglyphics on it.”

Warm weather and sailing are a hand-in-glove fit for Hamm. He traverses the Great Lakes in his O’Day 28 sailboat to destinations that include Traverse Bay, Pentwater and Manitou Island. Sailing is an experience unlike any other, said Hamm.

“I think there’s a spiritual quality to being on the water,” he said. “It’s a total immersion in nature, hearing the water by the hull, hearing the seagulls, hearing the creaking of … the (rigging). Going anywhere on the water is like a time warp. It’s more about the journey than the destination.”

Hamm admires two historical figures: George Washington and Sir Ernest Shackleton.

“He was the perfect person for our fledging country,” Hamm said of Washington. “The things he (did) from a leadership standpoint — he had real guts. He went against the No. 1 military force of the world and crossed the Potomac and captured the whole camp while his army was starving. There was a tremendous bond with his leadership team.”

Shackleton’s 1902 trip to the Antarctic resulted in an iced-in ship, the Discovery, followed by a march in the direction of the South Pole. The results were disastrous and life threatening. All 22 of the expedition’s dogs died and Shackleton’s party faced snow blindness, frostbite and scurvy. Even so, “he saved all his men,” said Hamm.

Hamm has on his radar the goal of writing two books: one about effective leadership and a children’s book with a nature theme.

 “With the kind of work I do, I don’t think I’ll ever retire,” he said. “I’m very energized by people, projects and worthy goals. Work is not work. It’s been so enjoyable.” 

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