Inside Track: Powered by challenges
Before joining Norris, Perné & French, Lon Swartzentruber helped a school system secure its financial future.
The new managing director — the first and only managing director — at Norris, Perné & French, the oldest privately owned investment management firm in Grand Rapids, is a guy with a track record of taking on difficult challenges.
It probably helps that he has a good sense of humor.
In 1995, just before Lon Swartzentruber moved to Grand Rapids, he earned an MBA from George Mason University, just outside Washington, D.C.
“I was the first student hired out of my graduating class,” said Swarzentruber — an impressive achievement. But then he laughs and admits he may have been the only one hired by a nonprofit.
Swartzentruber was always interested in civic service, especially trying to help individuals and organizations that needed help. His wife, Sandy, is a native of Grand Rapids, and the job her husband found in 1995 when they decided to return to the city was at Jellema House, a residential drug treatment home that was having financial problems.
After a few years, Swartzentruber’s accounting and business skills helped put Jellema House back on solid footing. Eventually, he began to yearn for another challenge — but that’s getting ahead of the story.
Swartzentruber grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia in a Mennonite family. His father was a Christian school teacher and a member of the clergy. Later, his parents established a consulting firm that taught educators how to teach better, and with its success, Rev. Swartzentruber was able to devote more of his time to his Mennonite congregation.
Swartzentruber attended Goshen College, a liberal arts college in Goshen, Ind., that is affiliated with the Mennonite Church USA. He earned a B.A. in business and then went to live in Washington, D.C., as a two-year volunteer for the Mennonite Board of Missions, where he ended up working as an accountant in a nonprofit organization called For Love of Children, which provides free educational services to help children from low-income families succeed from first grade through college.
“We were one of the largest, private foster-care agencies, ran our own school (primary and secondary), ran a group home for adolescent boys, provided affordable housing for low-income families, and a wilderness camp for at-risk boys and girls in West Virginia,” said Swartzentruber.
At For Love of Children, he also met an employee named Sandy, who was to become his wife.
Swartzentruber spent five years at For Love of Children; after his first two years as a volunteer, he was hired by the organization. In 1993, he left to work on his MBA degree, with Sandy supporting him. He also worked on the side as a business consultant to several nonprofit organizations while going to school, the largest of which was the Washington, D.C., chapter of Habitat for Humanity.
In 1995, Swartzentruber began as director of operations at Jellema House, which was then part of Pathfinder Resources Inc. He was vice president of operations from 1997 to 1998.
By then, Jellema House was on an even keel, and Swartzentruber began looking again for something more challenging. That proved to be a position at the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, where he served as donor relations director from 1998 to 2004. One of his key roles was to improve and build upon the foundation’s relationships with individuals who had established “donor-advised funds” at the foundation. In a donor-advised fund, the donors play an important continuing role in recommending where grants from their funds should be made.
Another major part of his job was finding new donors willing to make permanent new charitable endowments to GRCF. So Swartzentruber was helping existing donors find good uses of their charitable donations for their favorite causes and also looking for new donors in that same category.
“In the world of sales, you call it internal and external sales,” he said.
“I ended up getting to know our donors very well, which gave me a better ability to help them make grants to organizations they cared about,” he said.
“A huge component of what makes me tick is understanding what my client — my donor, my customer — what they want to do,” he said, and then helping them achieve it. The resulting improved relationships — “fantastic relationships,” he said — helped get the word out about what the foundation was doing and led to the establishment of more endowed funds there.
“Building long-term relationships with individuals — initiating them, helping them grow, sustaining them — is a really important part of my life,” said Swartzentruber.
He also created and implemented the Corporate Charitable Fund program, involving new outreach efforts and resulting in new five- and six-figure gifts, with increased donor and prospective donor interest in the foundation’s philanthropic efforts.
After six years, Swartzentruber felt a lot of fulfillment at GRCF, but then he learned about an organization that was in dire need of professional help: Grand Rapids Christian Schools.
When he was hired there as chief advancement officer in 2005, “it was $20 million in debt and had an operational infrastructure that could not support high-quality Christian education,” he said.
One thing Swartzentruber said he had learned at GRCF was “the incredible generosity of the Grand Rapids community.” He notes, for example, the volunteer funding that always materializes to help the Catholic schools.
“I believed (Grand Rapids Christian Schools) could get donors. Donors in our community are not going to let our Grand Rapids Christian (schools) fail,” he said. “I believed that if we could create the relationships that were necessary, those relationships would help the schools succeed.”
And they did. To make a long story short, Swartzentruber led several fundraising campaigns that eventually raised more than $100 million and helped secure Grand Rapids Christian Schools’ financial future. He was instrumental in helping lead the development and implementation of two strategic plans and increase the involvement of donors, alumni, parents and grandparents in supporting the schools by building strong relationships.
Swartzentruber said the success of the Christian schools isn’t due to him; rather, it reflects the donors in the community and their commitment to Christian education.
“I was just the guy who was there helping to create the initiatives and campaigns necessary” to round up that help, he said.
Swartzentruber just joined Norris, Perné & French in January. As managing director, he will use his experience and expertise to initiate enhanced services to meet the expressed philanthropic, estate and legacy planning needs of the firm’s clients. The firm said in an announcement about Swartzentruber’s new position that by supporting client needs in this way, its counsel will take on “new and exciting possibilities as we continue our legacy of providing high-quality investment counsel.”
The firm was founded in Grand Rapids in 1933 by Abbott Norris, who was later joined by Charlie French and Ford Perné. It began by serving the needs of a prominent Grand Rapids family but has grown over the past 80 years to serve more than 400 clients in more than 20 states. It is an independent and locally owned business.
Norris, Perné & French has a staff of 17, including five portfolio managers, two research analysts and a team of client services and operations professionals. The managing partners, who own the firm and are part of the staff, are Chad Dutcher, Jay Wisentaner, Kurt Arvidson, Stephen Wert and John Darling.
When the recession was beginning to set in back in 2007, the firm was managing about $600 million in assets; careful management of those investments throughout the recession and the addition of new clients have raised the amount under management to almost $1.2 billion today.