DAILY WHALE / Tom Butala
Kurt Summers, Jr. is scheduled to replace Stephanie Neely as Chicago’s city treasurer on Dec. 1.
Summers is the grandson of the late Sam Patch, a political strategist for former Mayor Harold Washington. For the past two years Summers served as a senior vice president with Grosvenor Capital Management, the Chicago-based investment firm led by Michael Sacks. Before joining Grosvenor, Summers served as Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s chief of staff.
“I’m very excited about introducing myself to the people of Chicago …. and really excited to have the opportunity to show them why they should hire me for the job [in February],” Summers said. “They are my boss, and I want to get hired in February, so I’m going to work very hard between now and then.”
Summers is the oldest of five children in what he described as a lower-middle class family from Chicago’s Chatham neighborhood. He attended Whitney Young High School on the Near West Side before earning a bachelor’s degree from Washington University and a master’s from Harvard Business School.
Daily Whale sat down with Summers last week to discuss how he is preparing for his new job and for the 2015 city elections. An edited version of that conversation follows.
DW: How does it feel to be selected to serve as Chicago’s next treasurer?
KS: Fantastic. It’s really a life’s dream come true. It’s, I think, an ability to serve the city that I love, my hometown, in a way that I feel I was made for. My entire career, both in the private sector and sort of building my expertise in finance and investments as well as the opportunities I’ve had already to serve, they all kind of come together perfectly for this moment and this opportunity. And while it wasn’t expected, it was definitely meant to be.
DW: Tell me a bit about your experience with Grosvenor Capital Management.
KS: I was in the office of the chairman there, it’s a six-person office. You have the chairman – who’s Michael Sacks, the vice chairman, and then four of us that support the chair and vice chair in helping run various day-to-day parts of the firm.
In addition to that I particularly was focused … on strategy and corporate development. So that means any new product, new market, new initiative, acquisition, corporate investment, kind of fell on the team of me and a couple other people, which was exciting because it’s the sort of future direction of the firm.
I also managed a portfolio of hedge fund investments and ran our firm’s effort for investing in emerging managers – minority and women-owned managers, diverse managers. … As a firm we have the largest practice in the country in the alternative investment space to invest with emerging managers. It’s something I’m very proud of. During my two years there I led the creation of the first ever co-mingled hedge fund investment vehicle to invest in minority and women-owned hedge funds and start minority and women owned hedge funds.
DW: What’s been your experience working with Michael Sacks?
KS: Wow, what can I say? I have to be careful because I have a lot of great people who I’ve worked with – people like Pat Ryan, Toni Preckwinkle. But Michael is a special person. He has a special love of and commitment to this city that parallels or exceeds virtually any business leader I’ve met in my life. And it’s not limited to philanthropy, it’s not limited to financial support of civic causes. This is a person who rolls up his sleeves and while he runs a business every day, he’s also thinking about, “What can I do today to help the city of Chicago?” He’s a fantastic friend, mentor, role model for me, and I just can’t say enough about what a joy it was to work with him and how much I’ve learned from him.
DW: You spoke of investing in minority- and-women-owned business at Grosvenor. Do you foresee a similar investment strategy with the Treasurer’s Office?
KS: On the investment side there’s a couple of things that need to happen. First of all, we launched this campaign, … [and] it’s all about investing in our Chicago. And what that means is whatever it means to you. Whatever part of Chicago you live in, it’s about investment in you and your community as well.
I believe that Chicago is a great investment. I believe there are opportunities in Chicago for us to invest capital directly and influence capital where we can get a great return as fiduciaries of those funds, but also where there’s a great public good in investing in communities and investing in neighborhoods. I’d like to do more of that, and I will do more of that as treasurer.
Second thing is that strategy in and of itself leads to improving Chicago’s economy, creating more jobs in Chicago. And that sort of commitment helps me as an investor in Chicago’s bonds. If you think about the Treasurer’s Office, you manage short-term cash, you’re also an investor in municipal bonds. Sometimes those bonds are Chicago’s bonds. As an investor I want to see lower unemployment, more people on the tax rolls, more people owning property, a growing middle class and working families that are contributing to the tax base and the revenue that we have as a city. So as an investor it’s a good thing for me, it’s a good thing for Wall Street investors, it’s a good thing for ratings agencies, anyone who’s buying the debt of Chicago, which we issue annually. … It’s a good thing for all of those folks when we have a message that we think Chicago’s a good investment. And it’s a good thing when it leads to more revenue for our coffers to provide services. …
Whether that’s minority and women owned firms, whether that’s opportunities to invest in Chicago, or that’s growing Chicago entrepreneurs, all of those things … represent great investments and outperforming investments. Its my job and my obligation to pursue them.
DW: Are there any other specific plans for when you take office that you’d like to share?
KS: We’re still sort of preparing for Dec. 1 now. I’m having regular meetings with the current treasurer, who’s been fantastic. [I’m] having regular discussions with community leaders, business leaders from around the city and around the world really – financial experts – about things that I can do in this office and new ideas and … [about the] opportunity to bring more innovation there; to build on the good foundation that we already have, but take the set of best practices from around the country.
I’ve talked to about five city treasurers in the last week who – the great thing about having worked at a place like Grosvenor is I know a lot of my peers from around the country. A lot of them called to congratulate me and then immediately dive into, “Here’s what you’ve got to do.” But we’re still developing that. I think it will come out over time as I learn more about the best practices around the country and I learn more about the needs of our stakeholders in Chicago.
DW: Tell me about your upbringing.
KS: I was an adolescent in the late 80s, early 90s. It was a tough time in Chicago. There was a lot of gang violence at the time, which was different than the sort of gang violence that we see today because there were large gangs that literally controlled segments and portions of the city. There was a lot of pressure as a young person growing up to be in a gang; to use or distribute drugs, or to do other things that are not advisable. It’s hard enough having the motivation to go to and from school every day and work hard, but when you have to do that and you have to navigate potentially very violent or life-threatening situations, it makes it that much harder. So that was a big challenge growing up.
I grew up in a household – I would say we were lower middle class. No one had a college degree, … and [it was] difficult many times to make ends meet. That’s why I’ve always been driven and motivated when I have opportunities to advance our lot in life for my family. I take full advantage of them because I’ve seen what it’s like to struggle. …
It was all of that background and all of those struggles and challenges and having to grow up a little bit quicker – all of those things I realize now were for my benefit and give me a perspective on working families, on challenges in our neighborhoods today, on sort of struggling to make things meet, as a pursuit of education as a way to make it out – I know it all too well. It’s unfortunate that I had to go through all of that, but it makes me a better, more empathetic, more caring, better understanding leader and hopefully public servant.
DW: You’ve said that your time on the debate team at Whitney Young had a profound impact on your life. How so?
KS: I met a teacher named Les Lynn, who was my English teacher. Les was starting a debate team at Whitney Young. Les Lynn had a monumental impact on the trajectory of my life because he took the interest in introducing me to debate; saw a smart but also kind of sassy kid in his class who had a lot to say, and said, “Well were going to put that to good use,” because I would debate with him and argue with him in class. Les really got me excited about learning; learning new subjects; becoming well versed and knowledgeable.
At the time, Whitney Young was the only public school in the city of Chicago that had a debate team. So everyone that we debated with in the Chicago area were all the suburban teams. So you had this group of kids from Whitney Young, largely minorities, that would go to suburban schools where the population didn’t look like us. I feel like it was one of those cheesy 90s movies where you have a, you know, savior teacher taking this urban group of kids. But it was kind of like that. We would go to these schools and we would compete and we would win. And what that did for my confidence and what that did for my view of myself and my trajectory and my ability to compete with anyone – It was immeasurable. I went from not studying, not caring much about school, caring a lot more about sports and trying to have a girlfriend, to wanting to soak up everything I could, learn everything I could about a certain subject.
DW: Did you do other extracurricular activities in school?
KS: I was on the football team. The guy running for 24th Ward alderman, he and I were on the same football team – Michael Scott, Jr. … I was on the tennis team as well. I learned how to play tennis, actually, at Chicago Park District summer camp when I was eight years old – Tooley Park in Chatham. At the same camp, eight years old, was Rod Sawyer’s now-chief of staff, a guy named Brian Sleet. So Brian and I were both eight years old in the same camp at Tooley Park learning to play tennis. And then I was also on the math team. I’ve always had a proficiency for math, always been good at it. …
One other thing I did in high school is I worked. I had a job. That’s how I met Toni Preckwinkle for the first time. There was a family-owned grocery store, a block from her house [and] five blocks from my house. I was a bag boy. Every week she’d come in and I’d be bagging her groceries and walking her out. That was the other thing that took a lot of time when I was in high school because I had to make ends meet at home. She’s such an imposing figure, you don’t forget that. I didn’t have a growth spurt until really late, so she was especially imposing for me.
DW: Your grandfather, Sam Patch, did he bestow any knowledge onto you?
KS: What I would say is that my passion for service and commitment to community all starts with him. It all stats with … what I learned from him growing up and all of the people around him.
He had this wonderful relationship with Harold Washington who was a great leader for all of Chicago, but there were a host of other people who were around him. You had John Stroger, who became the county board president. You had Emil Jones, who became the Senate president. You had Cecil Partee, who was the [city] treasurer and became the state’s attorney and ran for attorney general for the state of Illinois at a time when you hadn’t had an African-American on a statewide ballot. You had Justice Charles Freeman, who became an Illinois Supreme Court justice. All of those folks were around. They were all a part of that time, and they all had a common sense of purpose and obligation to uplifting and investing in their community.
It wasn’t about politics and power, it was about helping people, every day. My grandfather on his way home everyday from work would stop at a local small business and … buy a sandwich or buy something from a store because he believed in keeping the return of capital in his community. That’s what I learned, and it extended far beyond him and beyond those great leaders around him. I saw the love of the community that they had and how much people appreciated the work that they did for them because they knew that it was all for them and only coming from a place of service. So that’s where it all started for me.
I felt him with me last week and will continue to lean on him now that I’m entering this journey.
DW: You were a member of the city task force that selected the site for the Lucas Museum. Tell me about the selection process?
KS: We looked at suggestions for over 50 sites from around the city in this process. We had a set of criteria that we laid out. … Those criteria led us to a group of finalists. Those finalists were all laid out in the report. … As we thought about the vision of George Lucas and what he wanted to accomplish, … it was very clear that that site [we selected] can hit the most criteria at the highest level and gave us the greatest opportunity to win in a very competitive situation.
Once we got involved, San Francisco ramped up its effort. L.A. got in the mix and wanted to be a contender. None of that deterred us, but we had to put our very best foot forward and the question was, “What does that look like for Chicago as it relates to these criteria that we had, as it relates to conversations that we had with George Lucas around his vision?” And it was abundantly clear, I think, that this was the right place.
DW: Are you a “Star Wars” fan?
KS: I am. I would say if you poll 100 people, 75 of them would say their favorite Star Wars movie is “Empire Strikes Back.” That’s my guess. My favorite is [the original] “Star Wars,” and the reason for that is it’s what started everything. It’s the creation story, if you will. It was the introduction of these new worlds and these new characters and these new species and these new ways in which we could imagine a different world other than our own, but was still very relatable.