Inside Track: Perseverance trumps upbringing for Blackford Capital director
Jeff Helminski experienced being poor as a youngster and decided that would not be his lot in life.
In high school, Jeff Helminski told his class he was going to be an entrepreneur like Donald Trump.
Trump’s riches and status were a far cry from Helminski’s childhood: a family of five surviving on his dad’s $13,000 salary as a Catholic school teacher in Muskegon. Adjusted for inflation from 1980, that’s about $35,000 now.
Helminski, who is now managing director of Blackford Capital, had his first glimpse into the world of affluence while working at Muskegon Country Club in high school. He sometimes discussed with various members where he should go to college. His hope was to earn a degree in chemical engineering and then follow a path either to a career in business or as a surgeon.
“I had access to people with experiences and professions I didn’t have access to before that,” Helminski said. “I talked to folks there about engineering. I heard generally one of two responses: You should either look at Michigan Tech and University of Michigan, or at Purdue and Michigan Tech.
“Michigan Tech was always in the conversation, and so it (seemed like) a good fit.”
The small town of Houghton and the outdoorsy setting of the Upper Peninsula convinced him to choose Michigan Tech. Unfortunately, he found he wasn’t a natural at chemistry; he was weeded out by Chemistry 102. Helminski gave up his dream of being a surgeon and switched his major to mechanical engineering.
When he graduated in 1997, General Motors was one of the most powerful companies in the country. “If you were a good, strong, mechanical engineering graduate in that day, you went to work in the auto industry,” Helminski said.
He applied at General Motors and was put into its leadership development program. He began working with the GMT800 program, the base platform for big SUVs such as Yukon, Tahoe and Suburban. He helped launch the program in five plants in three countries.
But it wasn’t enough. Helminski’s aspiration was to have a hand in running the company, and to do that, he reasoned, he’d need experience working on the plant floor.
“Most people thought I was nuts,” he said of his desire to head to production.
He was sent to the Pontiac East Assembly Plant to work in a department where people the company wanted to fire were sent. Helminski tackled the task, helped get the department running smoothly, and was promoted to the plant’s business manager with approximately 150 UAW workers under him.
“It was about that time I decided that I probably was never going to run General Motors because I didn’t have the patience to get there,” Helminski said. “Plus, I’d always wanted to go back to business school and get an MBA.”
In 2001, he applied and was accepted to Stanford University’s MBA program. He and his wife, Tammy — an environmental engineer working at Ford Motor Co. with a master’s degree in environmental policy — packed up and moved to Palo Alto, Calif.
He points out that his “retirement” from the auto industry came at a pivotal time.
“It’s funny if you look at the stock price from the day I left. It was pretty much straight down to bankruptcy (after that), and I’m sure there was a direct correlation between those two events,” he joked.
At Stanford, Helminski was thinking of two possible career choices: private equity investment in manufacturing or real estate development.
“If you drill down into the skill sets and activities that make you successful at those things, they are almost identical, so I picked the real estate development route,” he said.
As he finished up his MBA in 2003, his wife decided she wanted to go to law school. It was Helminski’s turn to move where she wanted. Her choices were to stay in Palo Alto or head to the University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor. The pair moved back to Michigan, as they had always planned to do.
Upon their return, Helminski began to work with a subdivision developer in southeast Michigan. He worked with the company until the economic downturn of 2006, which he thought was at the bottom of its downward spiral. He thought it was a good time to go out on his own.
“I ... left the company and started my own business doing real estate development, thinking, ‘Great, we just had this correction, we just hit the bottom; not sure how long we’ll be here, but eventually, it’s up from here. It’s the perfect time to go out on my own.’ Then 2007 and 2008 happened, and things really fell off a cliff.”
He entered a partnership in January 2011 with his largest equity investor who had a student housing development and management company — Campus Village Development — in Ann Arbor. Helminski was named president of the firm.
That same year, his wife, who had graduated from law school in 2006 and was working at Detroit’s Dickinson Wright office, was recruited by Barnes & Thornburg, and the couple relocated once again, this time to Grand Rapids.
“They gave her a tremendous professional opportunity we couldn’t say no to,” he said.
Trying to do real estate work in Ann Arbor while living in Grand Rapids wasn’t ideal, and Helminski decided he wanted to get back into manufacturing investment. He had recently met Martin Stein, the founder of national private equity firm Blackford Capital, who had moved to Grand Rapids from southern California to set up the Michigan Prosperity Fund, which invests in Michigan businesses. The first company invested in was Custom Profile Co. in Grand Rapids, and Helminski was named to the company’s board even as he wound up his partnership in Ann Arbor so he could join Blackford full time.
“It’s a bit of a circuitous path, but the underlying fundamentals and skills of real estate investing and investing in manufacturing companies is almost identical,” Helminski said. “It’s a more complicated asset class, but the fundamentals are exactly the same, so that’s how I’m at where I am today.”
Helminski has come a long way, but he no longer idolizes Donald Trump’s wealth and lifestyle.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people who are successful and created tremendous wealth for themselves. Some of them have figured out how to do it right, while others look back and think they didn’t do a good job at it and feel like it’s one of their greatest failings in life.”
Now, one of his biggest concerns is making sure his children are raised with the same motivation and values he had growing up.
“I think it’s a challenge. It’s making sure they’re aware of what they have and that not everybody has as much as they do, and teaching them to work hard.”
After years of moving across the country for one another, the Helminskis now can see each other’s offices from their windows across Monroe Avenue.
“She can look into my office from hers,” he said. “It’s maybe a little unsettling for some people, but it works for us. We can get together for lunch. We both have pretty busy careers, so time together is a premium.”