Ellie Frey Zagel strives to apply her resources and connections toward building up the community and helping those with family wealth leave a strong legacy.
Frey Zagel is used to being locally famous in West Michigan, as granddaughter of Edward Frey — who founded Union Bank in Grand Rapids (now part of JPMorgan Chase) and Foremost Insurance Co. — and as daughter of John Frey, who was chair of the family’s Frey Foundation until 2014.
She also was founding executive director of Local First from 2005-06 and director of the Family Business Alliance from 2009-17 — an organization that helps family businesses succeed from generation to generation.
As current vice chair and trustee of the Frey Foundation, which had over $154 million in assets in 2019, Frey Zagel now has the opportunity to continue her family’s legacy through the foundation’s investments in enhancing the lives of children and families, protecting natural resources, promoting the arts and building community.
But Frey Zagel hasn’t always been so visible. One of five children, she grew up on the Frey family farm in the small town of Charlevoix, population 4,000, where she learned the virtues of working with her hands, loving the outdoors and treating all people with respect.
“We didn’t belong to the country club. We were farmers. It was a very basic life I grew up on, and so a lot of my work ethic and the way I see the world and the way I relate to people was developed very early from my upbringing on the farm,” she said.
During her enrollment at Boston University, where she received a bachelor’s degree in international business and economics, Frey Zagel studied abroad in Sydney, Australia, and then after college, she worked in product development in Kampala, Uganda.
ELLIE FREY ZAGEL|
Organization: Successful Generations
Position: Founder and president
Residence: East Grand Rapids
Family: Husband, Chad Zagel; son, Steven Zagel
Business/Community Involvement: Vice chair and trustee, Frey Foundation; board member, National Center for Family Philanthropy
Biggest Career Break: “When I moved to Grand Rapids, I was able to become the first executive director of Local First. I helped create it as a nonprofit, and that was a very powerful experience. I got to meet a lot of small business owners within the community, and through that organization, I really started to fall in love with business.”
She also has lived in major cities such as Chicago, New York and San Francisco. Frey Zagel said living outside West Michigan is something she recommends for everyone.
“I just think it’s really important to see how other people live, learn about other cultures and create a global perspective,” she said, noting it allowed her to put her family’s status in context.
“My family has a very recognizable last name in western Michigan but not in any other part of the country or the world,” she said.
At the same time, Frey Zagel recognizes that being part of a locally influential and wealthy family has given her certain advantages that she would not otherwise have had, such as discretionary funds for giving.
She has been able to work in philanthropy and serve on boards of directors — which often require a financial commitment, whether through personal funds or fundraising — since the age of 15.
When she first moved to Grand Rapids in her mid-20s, she was invited to serve on the board of the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts.
“I don’t think I would have had the opportunity if I belonged to a different family,” she said.
Frey Zagel said board service over the years has taught her — among many other lessons — how to network and learn from people; how to understand what she’s saying “yes” to, and only saying yes if she can commit her full passion; how to show up and go “all in”; and how to truly listen to others.
The latter can be very difficult in a room full of strong feelings, she said.
“Oftentimes, we are very passionate about the boards we serve, and it can get emotional. I think that boards need that passion, but in a board meeting … sometimes what happens is our passion is so great that we leave our expertise at the door, which is not what the organization needs.”
She said the best board members bring their expertise in law, finance, accounting — whatever the case may be — and they listen, ask good questions, do the legwork and help the organization grow.
Frey Zagel also said it’s important for board members to know their limitations in whatever phase of life they’re in, to avoid serving on too many boards at once.
In her work as a coach, podcaster and adviser through the firm she started in 2017, Successful Generations, Frey Zagel said she works with leaders to help them avoid burnout so that they can continue to “lead strong.”
“The focus on health, wellness and resiliency while leading others is incredibly important,” she said.
After over a decade of serving the business community, being a real estate agent with Second Story Properties/CWD Real Estate Investment and working with family businesses, Frey Zagel launched Successful Generations. It started first as a podcast, then morphed into a business that entails speaking engagements, peer groups, a bit of consulting and a lot of coaching “the next generation of family business, family philanthropy and family wealth” to give them “the resources they need to be the leader they want to be.”
“I fell in love with leadership coaching. I love my business leaders, I love all aspects of business, quite frankly, but what I was finding is there was something missing in the coaching that I had been receiving. I had fantastic coaches, but they weren’t getting at the heart of my obstacles, of why I wasn’t getting the results that I wanted,” she said.
“I found this particular program through The Life Coach School, and through the training that I received, which was very vigorous — as well as the ongoing continuing education that I’m doing weekly — it just is such a superior program that I’m able to translate that into really impacting my clients who are leaders. They’re leaders in their business, leaders in their community, leaders in their family, local leaders and national leaders, and what I’m helping them do … is to help them lead strong no matter what happens in their life and their business.”
Frey Zagel said she frequently addresses having the confidence to create your own identity as a leader after taking over the reins from the previous generation.
“Often, when you’re transitioning from one generation to the next, there’s an expectation that you’ll lead in a similar way, that you are going to be similar to your predecessor. That can be really damaging. As the next generation, if we are thinking that we need to be just like our mother, father or uncle, that diminishes the value that we bring to the table. And so I help my clients understand that one, they have a lot of value, and two, not everything rests on their shoulders.”
She said new leaders often wrestle with thoughts such as, “This is going to fail on my watch,” “I’m completely alone” and “There’s nobody I can turn to,” which creates paralysis and stress.
“I help free them up from all of that,” she said. “I help them find their own identity, their own leadership style, their own communication style and their own confidence.
“In a family business, every next generation that I know of has the stewardship and legacy of those before us in mind, but you’re also creating your own legacy and shaping the future of the company, which is perhaps not going to look anything like what the previous generation did.”
Frey Zagel said she believes everyone is a leader in some way, whether you’re 6 or 60. Knowing that the voice of self-doubt and fear often can intervene in being effective, she does “mindset work” to help people reorient their perspectives on leadership.
“If you think, ‘Oh, I can’t be a leader; I don’t have what it takes to be a leader,’ you’re not going to put yourself out there, you’re not going to show up to be a leader to yourself and to others. Really, what we should be saying is, ‘How can I serve? How can I help? What are some of my gifts that I bring to the table? What am I passionate about? How can I make things better? I have ideas. How can I implement them?’”
Frey Zagel said after having the opportunity to live, work and speak all over the world, she has learned that West Michigan is a special community.
“It has nothing to do with money,” she said. “You can feel the passion and commitment in every generation. … I have never experienced this energy, this passion, this commitment that I have in Grand Rapids.
“I want to be respectful because the experience I have had may not be the experience that other people have had, but considering the entrepreneurship that is happening in Grand Rapids, from all walks of life, … there’s an opportunity to make a difference. There’s an opportunity to affect change. … Do we still have work to do? Absolutely. There are still major problems, like in any community in this country, but instead of ignoring them, we are shining a light on them and trying to do something about it. And that’s just not always the case.
“(In West Michigan) it’s really about, ‘Are you giving back? Are you serving in some way? What are you doing to make this community better?’ And that is probably the most powerful thing ever.”