Alum Spotlight: John Gregg

This story first appeared in the Winter 2012 WGA Evans Scholars Magazine. View the original story.

“I know a guy, he’s a senator in China.”

Don’t be surprised if this — or some variation thereof — is how Alum John Gregg (Mich. ’78) starts out a story. If it’s not a senator in China, it could be a tribal chief in Nigeria, or a technology wizard in Germany. It could even be Pope Benedict XVI, whom he’s met once or twice, or his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.

Gregg has more than 2,500 people of influence in his Rolodex, among them too many university officials, politicians and corporate executives to name. In other words, he’s quite possibly one of the most networked people you’ll ever meet. And Gregg considers his resourcefulness a gift that allows him to carry out his most important life mission: helping others, or as he puts it: “making people’s dreams come true.”

From an early age in the caddie yard, Gregg was already exhibiting signs of leadership, the kinds of skills necessary to aid a rise through corporate America that would allow him to retire at age 51. Ingenuity. Determination. And an ability to talk with anyone, anywhere, about pretty much anything. They’re the same skills he uses now, as a volunteer project leader for the American Christian International Foundation, which works to establish long-term medical and agricultural efforts in developing countries.

Gregg grew up the second oldest of five children in a family whose parents placed a premium on two values: faith and service. His mom and dad worked church fundraisers and offered shelter to struggling relatives. Though money was tight, they gave away what they could — one contribution to build a church school was so high in relation to their income, the IRS demanded proof of payment, Gregg recalls. “We learned a lot by watching my mom and dad be charitable,” he said. “It was far more impactful than listening to them lecture about it.”

When he was 11, Gregg followed in the footsteps of his older brother, Bill, who began looping at the nearby Western Golf and Country Club in Redford, Mich. It was a way to earn cash, which helped him to attend a Catholic Jesuit high school. It also provided an early chance to hone his negotiation and persuasion skills. After a dispute over arrival times, he and Bill, who were both top-ranked caddies at the time, informed the caddie master they would be leading their fellow co-workers in forming a union. As expected, the caddie master was not pleased, forcing the two groups to compromise. The result was the creation of a caddie lottery system for loops.

When it came time to think about college, applying for the Evans Scholarship was a no-brainer. Bill already was a recipient. “It was the only approach I had,” Gregg said. “Growing up, I had no framework to think about college.”

He was awarded the Scholarship to the University of Michigan, where he studied chemical engineering. From the start, he felt a strong sense of camaraderie with his fellow Scholars. “Many students at the university feel a need to go home to find someone who cares,” he said. “All I had to do was go back to the Evans House. There was always someone around who cared.”

Rise to the top

After college, Gregg began his career at Procter and Gamble as a chemical engineer. At night, he would return to his home in one of Cincinnati’s most underprivilged neighborhoods, where he and his wife, Kathy, lived as part of a Catholic outreach community. Gregg served the residents of a housing project next door, teaching them business skills.

His exposure to rat-infested living conditions and a constant drug presence was a wake-up call. “I learned a lot about the poor,” he said. It also made him realize how lucky he was to have caddied. “The country club was my first exposure to teaching me about the power that scale offers, or what’s possible in life,” he said.

Gregg worked at other companies, including PepsiCo, before arriving at Kraft in 1988 as associate director, research and development, for Kraft Foods New Business Development. By age 37, he was named a vice president. He immediately made a statement by giving up his office, announcing he wanted to “connect with the people.” He claimed a few tables in the cafeteria and encouraged everyone, from corporate officials to cafeteria servers, to meet with him.

“He had a very unique work style,” says longtime colleague Dave Mehnert.” A lot of managers care about the business but don’t necessarily care about what it takes to get there. John just cared about people. He’s delighted with the idea of making a difference.”

Gregg took particular delight in helping colleagues advance in their careers and guiding them through personal ups and downs. “His faith is remarkable,” former colleague Roger Zellner says. “He was always having meetings with a whole range of people. He always gave good advice.”

Gregg inspired through story-telling, colleagues say, and he left groups transfixed with his colorful anecdotes. “His messages always came through stories,” Zellner says. “He has a gift as an orator.”

Mehnert recalls being disillusioned at one point in his career. But his way of thinking changed after hearing Gregg speak about being successful at work. “I took it to heart,” he recalls. “It was literally almost magical. When my attitude changed, I was just a happier person.”

Though a boss had initially expressed skepticism at Gregg’s managerial style, his reservations dissipated after a peer evaluation, born out of a company-wide survey, showed top marks for his performance. “I still don’t get it,” the boss told him, “but whatever you’re doing, do more of it.” That year, Gregg earned his company’s distinguished achievement award, an honor that usually went to someone in a customer service role.

When he wasn’t helping people at work, he was helping people outside of work: he ran the company’s United Way campaign for several years, led weekend-long Catholic retreats with high schoolers and became involved in a global project that aimed at improving the evangelization process for Catholicism.

“I don’t know if the guy sleeps,” Zellner says. “He has an incredible amount of energy.”

Along the way, Gregg felt it was important to share everything he was learning with others. At that point, he was a leading expert in food development, particularly dairy, and he regularly consulted with top businesses and universities about hiring chemical engineers to work in the food industry. He also served on numerous boards for groups ranging from a university in England to the Society of Hispanic Engineers.

When he was 51, Gregg decided he was done with the rat race. He wanted to refocus his efforts. So he gave his two weeks notice, to everyone’s shock, especially his wife’s. “I have more to do in my life,” he told his bosses.

Working in Nigeria

During one Catholic service trip about seven years ago, he met an archbishop from Nigeria who asked for help to improve the living conditions in his home country. Gregg initially declined. “I’m not a fundraiser,” he told him. “You need someone who can secure millions of dollars for you.”

But the archbishop wouldn’t take no for an answer, following up with a phone call to his home. Thus began Gregg’s next big chapter — his “job” in retirement. The more he learned about poverty-stricken Nigeria, where the life expectancy is only 47 years old, the more inspired he became to make a difference. During visits to the country, he connected with its people immediately: their values, including their faith, and focus on family.

For the past five years, his work in Nigeria has been his main passion. He joined with the American Christian International Foundation to become a project champion, first helping to raise money to expand a girl’s high school, then beginning work on a much larger project: creating a major agricultural effort to balance the overall food supply chain in southeast Nigeria. His efforts ultimately will help improve quality of life and life expectancy.

Gregg, who serves as ACIF’s vice president and treasurer, has created and is leading the massive effort, called WARE, which initially involves establishing a pilot co-op to unite all 38,000 farmers in the Ohaji region. Through a partnership agreement that directs and monitors how farmers do business together, the group works with nearby universities to train and implement best practices, addressing issues such as fertilizer shortages and inadequate transportation. Down the line, Gregg hopes to create what would be the region’s first production lines and manufacturing efforts.

As project leader, he spends much of his time working with political and educational leaders to direct funding to his group’s agricultural and medical efforts. Though fundraising is a goal — he raises about $40,000 a year, including an average of $15,000 of his own money — his networking expertise, leadership skills and knowledge of the food process are what’s most crucial.

“In this way, once our work is done, our presence and funding will not be necessary to sustain what will be in place,” he says. “Most charities talk about how much they put into a project. We talk about how much we get others, living in the region itself who control the existing resources, to spend on the things they should be spending their money on.”

Gregg dedicates about 50 hours a week to the project, taking four trips to Nigeria annually. His efforts already have been rewarded, with local leaders deeming him an “honorary chief” for the project within the context of the Igbo tribal system, a symbolic leadership gesture. The tribe also happens to be where Marquette Evans Scholar Maryclaret Ndubuisi-Obi is from, making for one of the more unique global connections within the Evans Scholars Program.

Aside from Nigeria, Gregg also travels to other countries each year, mostly China and Germany, to foster international support for the project. He lectures at several universities in China, which combined with his previous international corporate experience, has allowed him to build a truly global network of friends and colleagues. Gregg ultimately sees these relationships as the key to being able to change even more people’s lives. “God keeps bringing me the people,” he says.

And that brings us back to the senator in China. Gregg had tried for a year to convince him to visit Nigeria to see the devastating situation and potential opportunity for himself. As plans were being made this past spring, the senator nearly backed out when turmoil in Libya reached a peak. Gregg spent a couple hours going back and forth with the airline to ensure their plane would not be flying over dangerous areas, even quizzing them on a backup plan. Once he was satisfied they would be in no danger, he called the senator and relayed the message. “There’s no excuse now,” he told him. His friend made the trip, and the visit opened up new contacts with China’s agricultural and business communities.

Gregg hopes to someday expand the farmers’ co-op to the rest of Nigeria, impacting hundreds of thousands of farmers. It’s a long-term project that requires patience, and her husband has plenty, says his wife, Kathy. “When it seems impossible, when everyone else is afraid to try, he’s not,” she says. “That it takes time doesn’t bother him.”

In the meantime, he continues to spread the word — and share stories from his travels — with everyone, from his three children and their grandkids to college students and new people he meets each day. “We were at a wedding recently, and someone asked, ‘What are you doing in retirement?’” Kathy says. “He starts talking about the need for help in Nigeria. People are in awe about it.”

Gregg sees his work in a different light. Everything that’s happened in his life, from getting the opportunity to caddie, to earning the Scholarship, to working his way up the corporate ladder, has happened for a reason. “My whole life has been divine inspiration,” he says. “I didn’t have to do a lot.”

Now, it’s his time to give back. “For me, when helping other people, it’s led to great joy. If you can help someone’s dreams come true, it’s a great life,” he said. “I’ve got a great life.”