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Barry Griswell + Tom Urban: Tributes to the Esteemed DSM Community Leaders

Barry Griswell and Tom Urban

Recently, we lost two leaders who were each instrumental in their own ways, building and shaping the Greater Des Moines (DSM) community. Barry Griswell and Tom Urban made a significant contribution to our region and their reach and impact extended far beyond the business community. Tom chaired the Greater Des Moines Chamber of Commerce Federation, the predecessor to the Greater Des Moines Partnership, in 1985, and Barry chaired The Partnership in 2004. Both Barry and Tom were also inducted into the Iowa Business Hall of Fame. We asked Suku Radia and Steven E. Zumbach, respectively, to share their thoughts and reflections on the leadership of Barry and Tom. Their tributes are below. – Jay Byers, CEO of the Greater Des Moines Partnership.

J. Barry GriswellA Tribute to My Dear Friend J. Barry Griswell by Suku Radia

When I first met Barry, even more than his 6-foot-10-inch stature, what really struck me about him was his ability to connect with every person in the room. He had an amazing knack in making others feel they had no limits to their abilities.

Yet, when one considers Barry’s very challenging formative years, one has to marvel at how he achieved so much despite all the adversities he encountered. His mother married at 16, had two sons and was divorced three times within a span of two years, twice from the same man. His father and stepfather battled alcoholism and took their own lives.

Despite holding two jobs, Barry’s mother simply could not provide enough for her family and in his first 16 years, his family moved 16 times. There were no mentors and all the insecurity and upheaval took its toll on Barry’s education.

The odds were against Barry, yet, he rose to become the chief executive officer of The Principal Financial Group. He oversaw its initial public offering shortly after the September 11 attacks.

His life truly exemplified the mission of the Horatio Alger Society, “ . . . opportunities for a successful life are available to all individuals who are dedicated to the principles of integrity, hard work, perseverance and compassion of others.” He received the Horatio Alger Award in 2003.

Barry was a visionary not just for managing a large publicly held company, but also for his philanthropy, giving back to community and for championing diversity and inclusion.

My dear friend, Barry, will be remembered for so many great things in our community — the Principal Charity Classic (which has raised over $24 Million for children since inception), the Principal Riverwalk, making our United Way one of the most successful in the country and the list goes on.

Most importantly, Barry was a dedicated family man. Michele and Barry were married for 50 years and he was very proud of their two sons and two granddaughters. Growing up without a father, Barry was committed to being an exceptional father — he was all of that and more.

Barry had a great sense of humor and he never took himself seriously. I still remember a lunch with him when I was the designated recruiter — my job was to convince him to chair the Greater Des Moines Partnership. He asked one question, “Will it be good for the community?” That was his acid test for helping our region. After retirement, he became CEO of the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines for three years and refused to accept any compensation.

He was a tall man with a big heart who led by example.

Tom UrbanTom Urban’s Commitment to DSM by Steven E. Zumbach

Tom Urban was one of the most impactful leaders in our community during the last half-century and one of the most influential corporate leaders in the world during his term as CEO of Pioneer Hi-Bred. I’ve had the privilege of knowing and working with Tom since my wife, Kathy and I moved to Des Moines.

Tom grew up in Des Moines. He went to Harvard for his undergraduate degree and then to the Harvard Business School for his MBA. When he returned to Des Moines, local leaders had the wisdom to ask this brilliant, ambitious and thoughtful young man to run for Mayor. During a difficult time for the city, he was elected Mayor at age 33. As the Mayor of the City of Des Moines, he transformed the governance structure for the city into a more representative form of government that allowed the voices of all people to be heard. He also launched a vision for the reshaping and the rebuilding of our city.

Although Tom was a registered Democrat, it was the quality of ideas that was most important to Tom. He was a progressive with a curious mind that questioned all proposals and projects. He then found the best answers and implemented the best policies and solutions for our community. Because of those qualities, he was an effective and great leader for our city.

Tom not only excelled in his civic commitments, he also excelled in business. The science upon which Pioneer Hi-Bred was based was transformational and exponentially increased corn yields. Starting at the lowest levels, Tom rose to the top of the company to become CEO. Tom had the vision that Pioneer should position itself not only as a national industry leader, but should also be a global leader in plant genetics. Rather than just establishing a global presence, Tom wanted Pioneer employees located in all of the company’s markets and wanted those employees to understand the mission and the purpose of Pioneer. Tom’s focus was not only short-term success, but more so, making the needed investment in research to assure the best seeds would be produced maintain the long-term success of the company. To that end, he allocated large portions of the budget to research to make certain that the company’s plant genetics were the best in the world. Tom’s, and the company’s policy, was known as “The Long Look.” The Long Look was actually a vision statement drafted in great part by Tom’s father, Nelson, which Tom then embraced and promoted during his tenure at Pioneer.

Tom was a CEO who implemented a philanthropic component into Pioneer’s business plan. During Tom’s leadership, Pioneer was one of the anchors that helped build and rebuild our community. Inspired by Tom’s leadership and Pioneer’s leadership, others in the community followed and made financial contributions to community projects.

Tom had personal passions. Perhaps not surprising, plants were part of his soul. Tom helped with the acquisition of 17 acres of land and the rebuilding of the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden. He helped fund the land acquisition and improvements, in addition to leading the effort to raise over $17,000,000. The Botanical Garden and its surrounding grounds are one of Downtown DSM’s and Iowa’s greatest assets. He also served as chair of the National Tropical Botanical Garden.

Tom was one of the rare leaders with vision and strategic thinking, in combination with the ability to implement his ideas. He was driven to create and transform ideas into great products and projects that would transform his company and our community.

Tom’s passion for plants was also part of his personal life. His mother, Helen Urban, built a second home in Fraser, Colorado in the 60s and years later, Tom acquired another 250 acres of adjacent land and built homes for his family. Rather than using the all of the land for residential purposes, Tom realized it was a natural resource that should be preserved for natural open space. To that end, he granted a conservation easement to the Colorado Headwaters Land Trust to preserve the land and trees for future generations. It was classic Tom Urban. It was not about Tom, but the greater good and purpose that drove him.

Tom was also committed to the education and creation of knowledge. He served as a member of the Board of Directors of Simpson College and financially contributed to the college. For two years, Tom and, his wife, Mary moved to Boston which enabled Tom to be a member of the Harvard Business School faculty. Tom also funded the Thomas N. Urban Research Award housed in the Iowa Academy of Education located at the University of Iowa. He was recognized nationally for his abilities and served as chair of the Carnegie Institute.

Tom and Mary were deeply committed to their family. Although Tom’s life was quite public, Tom and Mary wanted their home life to be private. They refurbished Tom’s boyhood home and pursued their passion for plants and flowers. During their lives, their plants and gardens were a key part of the ambience of their home. They were deeply committed to treating each of their children as unique individuals and helping them pursue their passions. Tom and Mary were wonderful parents.

Our community has been the beneficiary of Tom’s leadership, wisdom and generosity.

J. Barry Griswell and Tom Urban images courtesy of the Iowa Business Hall of Fame.

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