GRAND RAPIDS — Walt Gutowski Jr. has been in the printing business for most of his life and has been very active in the community for much of that time, too. But the 45-year-old owner and president of Swift Printing Co. might have become a jazz guitarist who toured a lot if not for some advice from an Aquinas College professor.
Gutowski said he never wanted to be a printer during his high school and college years. Back then he had a band, and he enjoyed being a musician, although playing before well-dressed audiences at country clubs and parties led him to think about becoming a corporate manager or possibly an attorney instead of a guitar player. Then he met Aquinas professor Peggy Hine during his junior year as a student there.
“I wish I could find her. I haven’t seen her since. She was one of my favorite profs there, and she said to me, ‘You do not understand the opportunity you have with all the people that your father knows,’” he said.
Gutowski’s eyes opened a bit as a result of Hine’s words. When Sundaze — the band he formed with Terry O’Brien and Steve Bloom — played the party circuit again, Gutowski began to see some audience members in a slightly different light.
“Some of the managers didn’t seem real happy, always answering to somebody and such. And my dad was always happy, and to this day is always happy. So it was a great suggestion by her to go into the family business,” he said.
Gutowski began working at Swift Printing, a business his parents started in 1954 when he was 4 years old. He helped his dad, Walt Sr., now 84 years old, sweep floors at the Bridge Street shop every Saturday; the two of them would then head to the old downtown YMCA to play basketball.
“My nickname down there was ‘Jerry West,’” he said, referring to arguably the best-shooting guard the NBA has ever had.
But it wasn’t Gutowski’s shot from the top of the circle that earned him that nickname.
“I was the only kid not of color down there,” he said, “then one of the very few.”
Being the only white kid on the court made a lasting impression on Gutowski. He has served on the YMCA and the Grand Rapids Urban League boards for longer than he can recall, and he has a seat on the Y’s Diversity Council.
While serving on those boards and numerous others, Gutowski made Swift Printing a quiet leader in the industry. The company was the first one on the planet to add the Xerox i-GEN 390 digital press, and he has established such close ties to Xerox Vice President Tony Federico that the two water skied barefoot together at dawn on a summer morning last year.
“I love the people — the people aspect of it, combined with the technology. I don’t think there is any other field, other than maybe the medical field, that has had more technological advancements through my career in printing,” said Gutowski.
“Xerox is taking us under their wings. They’re going way out of their way to make us successful. They are great partners. One of the organizations that we are a part of is the Xerox Users Congress, which is by-invitation only. We are the smallest company in the world to have bought this machine, and to be invited to that association is pretty humbling.”
Even though he didn’t make music his career, Gutowski stills plays guitar, and guitars still play a significant role in his life. He said he has managed to build a “huge” guitar collection over the years, but his favorite remains his first: the one his dad and mom, Lorraine, bought him in 1976. Eric Wendlandt, a former music director in the Grand Rapids Catholic school system, is credited with sparking Gutowski’s interest in music.
“He made music fun,” he said of Wendlandt.
Walt and Amy have been married for 21 years, and they have four children, a son and three daughters, ranging in age from 11 to 20. The couple has been inducted into the Catholic Central Hall of Fame for their long-time financial support of the city’s parochial school system. Amy has worked as a travel agent and taught aerobics. Right now, she is a designer at Swift Printing.
“She loves being a homemaker; she is a great mom. She chose to stay at home, which was her decision when we had our first child.” he said. “And she is real involved with our kids and our kids’ schools. She is one of the co-chairs for my son’s graduation night, and she is one of the ‘school moms’ at the grade school that our youngest goes to, and she can always be found selling raffle tickets or whatever for the schools.”
Gutowski still plays a lot of basketball at the new downtown Y and racquetball with his dad, up to three times a week, on the court named in honor of his father. (By the way, Walt Sr. beat him a few weeks ago.) He plays guitar in a band called Little Walter and the Bridge Street Horns, and he also water skis — barefooted, of course — as does the entire family.
“Probably my passion is spending time with my children or following their extracurricular activities,” he noted.
Gutowski was born and raised on the West Side here. He was educated in Grand Rapids, too, having earned an associate’s degree in liberal arts from Grand Rapids Community College and a business degree from Aquinas College. His future, as one might expect, is here, too.
He plans to continue his community service at local boards — including the one at St. Ann’s Home, which he recently joined. He also plans to continue to own and direct Swift Printing, strum his guitar, launch jumpers at the Y and try to beat his dad at racquetball.
But there is something new in his immediate future, as he is also running for local office. Gutowski has thrown his hat into the ring for the 1st Ward City Commission seat that four-term Commissioner Roy Schmidt is vacating at the end of the year.
Gutowski knows exactly why he is running.
“I want to give back to the neighbors and neighborhoods that helped my parents raise me,” he said. “I think I’d be a good fit. I think I’d be the only businessman on the City Commission. I think that is an area that would add some balance to the already-great commissioners that we have.”