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Editorial


Front Page - Friday, February 1, 2019

Chapter 3 falls into place for Morgan


Life follows well-planned script for Boys and Girls Club CEO



Even as a college student, Jim Morgan knew exactly what his three-pronged career would look like.

“I wanted to work in a publicly traded company. I wanted to have an entrepreneurial company. And then I wanted to spend my last 15 or 20 years working with youth,” he says matter-of-factly.

“And my life has unfolded that way.”

Now firmly entrenched in the third phase, the 57-year-old Morgan started his new job as CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Chattanooga on Jan. 1 after two decades in banking, another in consulting and a stint as executive director of a not-for-profit organization that provides job training for disadvantaged youths in Chicago.

An outdoorsy kid who was “kind of quiet and a little bit of a mama’s boy,” Morgan grew up in Beecher, Illinois, a small German farm town of 1,200 named for the father of famous abolitionist and author Harriet Beecher Stowe. Morgan’s dad was the only barber; his mom drove a school bus.

Becoming an Eagle Scout transformed his life, he recalls. “Scouting appealed to me on many levels. But it really helped kind of change me from a quieter person to being a little bit more outgoing.”

After excelling in high school, both scholastically and as a member of the basketball and cross-country teams and playing in the band, he set his sights on being the first in his family to put himself through college.

Nearing the end of his civil engineering studies at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 1983, however, he realized he had picked the wrong major given his “big, outgoing personality” and the stoic demeanor of most of his classmates.

Perhaps fortuitously, a professor assigned him to spend a day at American National Bank, Chicago’s premiere private bank and the precursor to what is now JPMorgan Chase, and write a term paper.

“It was one of these truly big downtown, opulent headquarters, and you would take the escalator up, and it was this three-story atrium with a 200-year-old Flemish tapestry on the wall,” Morgan remembers. “It was the most unbelievable thing I ever saw. And I said, ‘I’m going to work here. And by God, I got a job.”

After graduating with a degree in finance, Morgan’s part-time position at American National turned into full-time work. As part of the RMT (rotational management training) trend that was prevalent in the 1980s, he spent six months at a time in different departments, from trade finance to correspondent banking credit. Through the years, he weathered several bank mergers, moving upward in the company and eventually becoming senior vice president of marketing in the commercial banking department.

It was during his 20-year run at the bank that Morgan’s early sense of volunteerism was rekindled. His parents had done a lot of church and community work and, as a Boy Scout, he was no stranger to service projects.

“Very young, I realized, ‘Wow, your life is enhanced when you’re helping other people,’’’ he says.

So when his employer urged him and his co-workers to give back to the community, he eagerly volunteered at Chicago’s Christopher House, an early childhood development organization for low-income families, similar to Chambliss Center for Children in Chattanooga. He also got involved at Link Unlimited, which matches high-potential inner-city youths with mentors who help pay for tuition in private high schools.

Morgan later became a board member of both groups and ended up supporting six young men, four years at a time, through Link Unlimited. He stays in touch with all of them.

By 2003, Morgan felt he had reached the peak of his banking career and that it was time to start his entrepreneurial chapter.

“I was a middle manager at a very large bank, and those can be challenging jobs,” he acknowledges. “You’re not really with the customer. You’re in charge of lots of people. I’d kind of had every job that was really fun.”

The bank had also paid for his MBA at the prestigious J.L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University.

Before leaving his longtime place of employment, Morgan visited with about 20 of his peers who had become presidents of small banks in the Chicago area and asked them what they missed about their former big-bank jobs. Each told him they would “give anything” to have access to the sophisticated marketing database that was once at their fingertips.

So, years before cloud-based computing had infiltrated the corporate world, Morgan launched Stratmark (short for Strategic Marketing), a consulting firm that worked with IT departments at smaller banks to build similar systems.

Two years later, he realized that although his sales skills were strong, his inexperience as a consultant was holding him back. So he sold his business to the publicly traded Navigant Consulting and stayed with the company, solving regulatory issues for banks. While there, he became a Certified Anti-Money Laundering Specialist before being recruited to Fortent – it later became Actimize – a large software sales company that helped global banks comply with industry regulations. He moved to New York, where he became the lead salesperson for North America and Southeast Asia. “I lived on an airplane,” Morgan says.

In 2010, after his mom grew gravely ill, he quit his job to return home and take care of her. That’s when he met Cortez, his fifth mentee at Link Unlimited and the one he refers to as “almost like a foster son.”

A freshman at the time, the young man hailed from a family with multiple problems and a lack of financial and emotional support. By the end of his sophomore year, Morgan had moved him to three different housing projects before finally talking to his parents and asking them to turn over parental rights at the school.

“I was really, more or less, his dad,” Morgan adds.

From then on, he attended all of Cortez’s basketball games and parent-teacher conferences. He also pulled rank with his fellow board members and got the boy a summer job at Christopher House.

Cortez enjoyed it so much that he decided to become a social worker. Morgan helped him pack, moved him into his college freshman residence hall in Austin, Texas, and cried in the parking lot when the two said goodbye. Cortez recently moved back to Chicago and is now working at Christopher House fulltime while finishing his senior studies locally.

“If it wasn’t for Link Unlimited, the program and me, Cortez would’ve fallen through the cracks,” Morgan says. “He’s a good kid, but with the help of a lot of people we got him on the right track and he’s going to be a really productive, responsible adult.”

After his mom passed away, Morgan met with several close friends from graduate school to determine what he wanted to do next. One of them ran the Illinois Department of Employment Security, which disperses unemployment benefits and reports to the governor. The state of Illinois had just authorized the transfer of $12 billion in payment processing to JPMorgan Chase, but no one at the department knew how to handle the conversion. Morgan, who had experience at JPMorgan and with complex software applications, was hired.

At the end of the two-year project in 2013, a friend and owner of PSA Solutions, an asset management and brokerage company that helped manage foreclosed real estate, hired Morgan to handle critical relationships with 30 Chicago-area banks.

“And then,” Morgan says, “all of a sudden I realized – it was when I turned 54 – that it was time for my third chapter.”

He started networking like crazy, starting with his connections at Christopher House and the Luminarts Cultural Foundation, which supports young Chicago artists, writers and musicians. “I’d been on a lot of boards, but I hadn’t ever really run a not-for-profit,” he says. “So I was really prepared to take a non-executive role someplace.”

The one thing he knew for sure is that he was passionate about helping young people. “At the bank,” he adds, “I realized that when you work with people younger than you, you are younger. You have more energy. And I believe in giving back.”

One day, just before a Christopher House board meeting, he excused himself to visit the restroom, where he ran into the executive director of another nonprofit, whom he had never met – or so he thought. When the man revealed that he’d worked for Morgan at American National years before, the two started talking and Morgan asked if he could pick his brain about job possibilities.

When the two met a few days later, Morgan asked, “Is there one job you think I’m perfect for?” The man quickly replied, “Genesys Works.” The founding director was retiring.

For the next two years, Morgan served in that position, starting new programs to help underserved clients prepare for graduation from high school and ultimately college. Under his leadership, the STEM-focused Genesys Works grew from serving 177 students in 2015 to 220 in 2017.

He also increased fundraising by 27 percent and procured a $1 million funded, randomized control trial to study the results of the program while working directly with families whose daughters were being discouraged from going to college and students who were shot in their own neighborhoods.

Morgan says 100 percent of the Genesys kids graduated from high school, and 95 percent enrolled in college. Seventy-five percent earned a secondary education diploma, compared with 14 percent of students of color in the general population in Chicago.

When Morgan’s partner got a great job offer in Chattanooga, the two agreed they didn’t want to retire in Chicago anyway. Plus, the Scenic City offered a lot of options for a couple of extremely active outdoor types.

About a year and a half ago they moved to Chattanooga, and Morgan continued to travel back and forth to Chicago to take care of his ailing father. When his dad died at the end of 2017, he started networking with civic leaders from nonprofit organizations ranging from the Benwood and Lyndhurst foundations to the Chattanooga Area Food Bank and Community Foundation.

He also volunteered two days a week at Chambliss Children’s Center, serving as a “father figure” to prekindergarten kids.

Then in 2018, Michael Cranford, executive director of the local Boys and Girls Club, announced he would retire after 50 years with the organization. “He was just part of the fabric of the community,” Morgan explains. “But coming from an operational standpoint, I kind of had done something similar at Genesys Works. The guy who started it retired, and those are big shoes to fill. When you’re a consultant, one of the things that you learn is that you’re typically parachuted into a company and you have to assimilate rather quickly.”

Charlie Brock, a Boys and Girls Club board member and chair of the CEO search committee, says he was immediately impressed with Morgan’s past successes, “infectious, energetic personality” and genuine commitment to helping others.

“Jim’s passion for kids is absolutely so transparent and really contagious,” Brock says. “Whatever he’s involved in, as long as he believes in the mission, he’s gonna bring 120 percent every day. I’m really excited about what he can bring to the club.”

Just a few weeks into the job, Morgan already has a new vision: to use the model that worked at Genesys to infuse a new sense of dynamism into the Boys and Girls Club. He wants to make sure its programming aligns with that of the Opportunity Zone schools in Highland Park and Alton Park, where the two clubhouses are located, and work with the schools on issues surrounding after-school tutoring, homework and literacy. He hopes to help inner-city families become healthier.

And he says he plans to “reinvigorate” connections in the community with a goal of blending education and workforce development in new ways.

Morgan, who runs, bikes and plays golf and tennis in his downtime, refers to his leadership style with young people as that of a “cool uncle.”

“I am blessed with a lot of energy,” he says. “I have a great empathy for our kids that we serve, and I’m incredibly motivated when people in the community surround them to help them succeed.”

On Feb. 7, the Boys and Girls Club will host its annual Great Futures Luncheon at The Chattanoogan hotel. All 12 Leaders of the Month for 2018 will be recognized. One will receive the Leader of the Year award and a college scholarship and go on to compete for additional honors in Nashville.

Already, Morgan has started meeting with community leaders who serve the same youths in one way or another, including a juvenile court judge and the head of the local Boy Scout Council, to discuss possible collaborations.

“Given my background, where I’m from, I’m able to talk to a youth, talk to a mom or talk to the CEO of Unum,” he says. “My skill set is that I’m able to wear different hats and talk to different people, and generally people will recognize that I’m genuine. I’m truly just a channel between the board, all the people that help the Boys and Girls Club, the programming, our employees and the kids. I’m just someone in between.”