Unlike his predecessor at Fifth Third Bank of Western Michigan, John Bultema didn’t always want to be a banker. While former president Michelle Van Dyke said she first realized she wanted to be a banker at age 8, Bultema, said as a youngster he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and own a business.
Bultema said his late father was an entrepreneur who became a self-made businessman, just like his grandfather. His grandfather owned the Bultema Dock and Dredge Co. in Muskegon and his father owned Lakeshore Contractors and then Great Lakes Marina with his partner, George Bailey.
“I was always around business and going to job sites with my dad, so I always loved business. I ran my family’s business when I was going to school at night. I frankly thought that I would continue in my father’s business or go into business for myself,” he said.
After Bultema graduated from Mona Shores High School, he began managing the marina during the day and attending Muskegon Community College at night. Revenue to the marina reached $5 million a year not too long after it opened on a vacant parcel on Muskegon Lake.
“We stored a lot of boats from Chicago, and I was basically running that for three years since they had built it. They sold their construction company to a division of Waste Management and had employment contracts. So one day, they said they couldn’t run the marina anymore because they had to go work for someone else. I was there and literally lived on the site for the first three years while we were growing it. It was a great experience. I was getting schooling in business and also running a business by day,” he said.
But an unexpected opportunity arose that changed his career direction. The Old Kent Bank loan officer his father did business with was a former high school friend, and Bultema’s father kept the banker updated on his son’s grades and his keen interest in finance. The loan officer said if Bultema was interested in banking to give him a call, and he did.
“It all kind of started there. I thought I’d go into banking for three to five years, get some experience outside of the family business, and then go back to the family business. But I enjoyed banking so much. I enjoyed the quick learning curve they had me on. They kept me challenged, and I was still close to business,” he said.
“That’s the great thing in banking: You get exposure to a lot of different businesses and how you can help those businesses. I really enjoy that, as it’s working with people, it’s helping people. It’s been a great career.”
Bultema said the biggest break in his career came five years ago when Fifth Third Bancorp made him one of only 17 affiliate presidents nationwide. At an age that defies the stereotypical portrait of a top financial executive, he left the area.
“I was president of our central and north Florida bank. I was 34 at the time. … I think every time (Fifth Third) moved me into a role, they’ve always taken a little bit of risk because I haven’t had as much experience maybe as others. But they’ve allowed me to take on those roles based on the success that I’ve had, and every time I’ve taken on those new roles, I’ve improved,” he said.
“But I would say the one in central Florida was a big challenge. I was the youngest president in the company’s history. It was a market where we had acquired several banks and needed some quick action to assimilate those banks and bring them into the Fifth Third fold,” he added.
Bultema has been with Fifth Third for 15 years, having started at Old Kent — the Michigan-based bank purchased by Fifth Third Bancorp in 2001. He said he has worked for Kevin Kabat and Van Dyke, either directly or indirectly, throughout his time with the bank. “They’ve been great mentors to me in my career,” he said.
Bultema also spent a few years in Chicago. “Old Kent relocated me to Chicago to run business banking for the state of Illinois,” he said. When Fifth Third bought the bank, he stayed on in the same position.
After his years at MCC, Bultema earned a finance degree at GVSU and later a graduate degree in finance from Western Michigan University. He doesn’t regret making finance his career because he knows what he does is important for the community and he takes pleasure in helping business owners achieve their goals.
“Communities do better when there is a strong business environment where you’ve got entrepreneurs and businesses that are hiring and growing. I take a lot of satisfaction and pride in knowing that the bank has helped a lot of people to do that, and at the same time we’re helping a lot of business owners chase the dreams they have,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun to help them fulfill what they’re doing.”
John has been married to Tiffany for 13 years. They met in Muskegon when he was a high school senior, and dated for a few years before they got married.
“She knew who I was because I was the only guy in high school that was as tall as her brother — she has a 6-foot-8-inch twin brother. She is tall at 5 feet 11 inches,” said Bultema. “She also went to Grand Valley, where she got her bachelor’s and master’s in social work. Her family is from Muskegon, as well.”
The Bultemas live in Ada Township with their children, 10-year-old Johnny, and Brook, who is 6. Before the kids arrived, Tiffany worked for Muskegon Family Services and Jenison Public Schools as a social worker.
The family enjoys downhill skiing. John and Johnny also like to hunt. Johnny doesn’t actually hunt, yet, as he is too young, but he likes being in the field with his dad. And like his dad, he also plays basketball. Brook, like her mother, likes to play tennis. She also is taking up basketball, having played her first game a few weeks ago. “She has been watching her brother play and she is already bragging that she is better than he is,” said Bultema.
“I like to play basketball when I can, but it’s hard to find the time. I like to exercise and I do that as religiously as possible. I love boating. I love being on the water in the summertime when it’s a beautiful day. I like to travel. I still, much to the dismay of many of my neighbors and my wife, cut my own grass,” he said with a laugh.
“When I was in high school I had my own lawn business and my dream was to always get one of those big ride-behind lawnmowers that the professional landscapers had. So I finally was able to get one. I put my iPod on and I have about an hour-and-a-half to myself cutting my grass. I enjoy it because I can turn around and see something that is done. I enjoy doing that kind of stuff.”
When Bultema replaced Van Dyke as bank president of the Western Michigan region in January 2009, he also took over her seat on the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority. DDA Executive Director Jay Fowler is glad to have him on the board.
“John has clearly become a leader amongst the DDA board members, and we really appreciate the contribution that he makes to the group,” he said
DDA Chairwoman Kayem Dunn echoed Fowler’s comment. “John is a quiet leader. He is thoughtful and asks probing, intelligent questions about matters that come before the DDA,” she said. “His perspective has been a great contribution to our efforts to continue the work of downtown development. I really look up to him — literally.”
Bultema also is on the boards for the YMCA, the Grand Valley University Foundation and the Ada Christian Foundation. He co-chairs the Community Division portion of the $15 million fundraising campaign that Grand Rapids Community College is undertaking. The division that he and Carter Products Co. President Peter Perez direct jointly has a goal of $1 million.
“It’s going very well. We’re almost at goal,” said Bultema. “We hope to wrap up the Community Division by the end of the year. We’ve got several asks out there that we’re hoping will come through that will get us to goal.”
Some of the funds GRCC is raising will go toward making upgrades to the East Fulton Street campus the college purchased last year from Davenport University. Bultema said he thought the school made a wise move by buying the site.
“It’s a fantastic reuse of important space downtown. And, frankly, I wouldn’t say it’s an easy task because things are tight, but people really value what they did and obviously value what the college does for us,” he said of the fundraising effort.
“I agreed to help out because I’m a product of a community college in Muskegon and I appreciate the importance they play in access to education and in helping people.”
As for the future, Bultema said he wants to make sure he carves out enough quality time for his kids as they grow and become more involved with their activities. At the professional level, he plans to grow the bank’s business because he is seeing encouraging signs that the economy is recovering.
“I think West Michigan is a very special place, and I think because of some of the unique qualities we have in our community and some good things that are going on, we will emerge from this recession quicker than others.
“So as I look at the future of the business of banking in this particular community, I’m certainly optimistic, based on what we have come through in the last couple of years. It has been very difficult. It has been very challenging. But tough times make you stronger, and I really think that’s the position we will be in as we go forward,” he said.