Patience pays off for Greenleaf


Chairman William Johnston said procuring the right local talent and the right location combined to convince him downtown Grand Rapids would be a successful location for Greenleaf Trust. Photo by Michael Buck

For William D. Johnston, chairman of Greenleaf Trust, patience is a virtue.

It’s a virtue Greenleaf Trust exercised for 18 years, as it waited for the right opportunity to gain foothold into the Grand Rapids market, a region the executive team had eyed for expansion since the privately owned, trust-only bank was founded in Kalamazoo in 1998.

Johnston said the bank was looking for the right combination of talent and location to become available, rather than forcing a move into Grand Rapids just for the sake of expanding. And last week, that patience finally paid off, when Greenleaf opened its first Grand Rapids office at 25 Ottawa Ave. SW.

“What we were really looking for is some moons to align,” Johnston said. “As we have gone through the journey of looking at the Grand Rapids market, our first and foremost criteria would be that we had to have the right talent, but we also wanted the right location. So, it had to be the right place, the right people for our entry into Grand Rapids and it just so happened that in 2016, those moons did align.”

Greenleaf tapped longtime local wealth management professionals Thomas DeMeester and John Grzybek to head up the Grand Rapids office, DeMeester serving as managing director and Grzybek as director of the family office. The duo previously had worked together at Fifth Third Bank and brings nearly five decades of combined experience in the area to the trust-only bank.

As for the location, the first floor of the more than 100-year old, six-story 25 Ottawa building proved to be more than suitable for Greenleaf’s new home. Catalyst Partners, which is owned by Johnston, purchased the building from Franklin Partners in February. The remainder of the building is rented out to Spectrum Health’s IT department, Fairly Painless Advertising and Iron Restaurant.

In addition to its Kalamazoo headquarters, Greenleaf also has offices in Birmingham, Petoskey and Traverse City. The move into Grand Rapids aligns with Greenleaf’s 2025 vision, with the bank angling to be “top of mind and brand dominant” within the next nine years. To do that, Johnston said Greenleaf will move forward with a strategy powered by organic growth, with expanding its geographical footprint and possibly taking part in some adjacent transactions. Johnston added it would be “quite conceivable” Greenleaf might expand outside of Michigan, as well.

One of the ways Greenleaf, which manages nearly $9 billion in assets, differentiates itself from its competitors is through its privately owned status, Johnston said. Where other banks might have a hierarchy of first meeting the needs of shareholders, followed by the needs of their employees and finally, the needs of clients, Greenleaf has the ability to flip the pyramid and truly operate as a customer-driven organization.

“Trust is in our name, and so being honest and honorable is nonnegotiable,” Johnston said. “With those pillars of our core business culture married with the talent on our team, we’ve got so much horsepower there that, no, I don’t think we’ll ever slow down.”

It’s that focus on putting the customer at the forefront of the bank’s services that attracted Grzybek and DeMeester to new careers at Greenleaf. Coming from a background of working at publicly traded companies, DeMeester said Greenleaf’s approach was refreshing.

“Day 1, you would be expected to accomplish miraculous things on the new business front,” DeMeester said. “And (Johnston) said to us, ‘Gentlemen, I want you to keep in mind that we’re in this for the next quarter-century, not the next quarter. So, let’s be sure that the decisions we make and how we go about it are long term, not short term.’ So how validating is that?”

The Grand Rapids expansion was met with overwhelming support from Greenleaf’s employees. Though the bank has expanded to other communities previously, Johnston said the enthusiasm from the bank’s 103 employees was “at a level I haven’t seen before.”

There’s much riding on Greenleaf’s expansion into the second largest market in Michigan, but Johnston is confident after 18 years, he’s finally found the right fit in Grand Rapids.

“Some businesses expand their footprint just to expand their footprint,” Johnston said. “But we don’t have a product to sell, we have a service to deliver, and it’s a very intimate service that requires the connection between the relationship officers and our clients.”

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