A conversation with Greg Ness
When the Portland Business Alliance prepared to hand out the 2019 William S. Naito Outstanding Service Award, the group knew exactly where to find this year's recipient.
J. Greg Ness spent his early years in Medford, Oregon, and then moved with his family to Washington state. After graduating from college, he moved to Portland, joined Standard Insurance Co. in 1979, and went on to create a place for himself as a leader both in the metro area's business community and the local not-for-profit community.
Standard Insurance, also known as The Standard, started in Portland in 1906 as Oregon Life Insurance and has since grown to more than 3,100 employees. Although most of those employees are located in the Portland metro area, the company also has offices in White Plains, New York; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Altavista, Virginia. Ness currently serves as president, chairman and chief executive officer of both Standard Insurance and its parent company, StanCorp Financial Group Inc.
In addition to his involvement as a leader in the business community, Ness has a long history of commitment to community service. A trustee emeritus and past chair of Portland Center Stage Board of Directors, he currently serves as chair of the board of directors of both the Oregon Business Council and the Armory Theater Fund, and is a member of the Oregon Health & Science University Foundation Board of Directors and the SOLVE Founders Circle. He also is an active supporter of Trillium Family Services and Habitat for Humanity.
Ness is the latest in a string of professionals from the business community who have received the Naito award, which the Portland Business Alliance has been presenting since 1985 to a member of the organization who exemplifies exceptional leadership and service to the Portland metro community. In 1998, the award was named in honor of Bill Naito, who dedicated his life to community service, philanthropy and leadership.
As Ness prepared to accept the award during the PBA's annual Business Leadership Evening on Nov. 6, he spoke with the Business Tribune about how his parents fueled his passion for community service, the commitment he and his wife share for community service, and how he and his company support their employees' efforts to pay it forward. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Business Tribune: In a piece written when you received an award from Portland State University, you mentioned getting your master's degree in business administration was one of the smartest decisions you ever made.
Greg Ness: My undergraduate degree was actually clinical psychology, so I wasn't a business major. I worked for a number of years and then went back to get my MBA to get a different perspective. The timing between experiencing what it's like to work in a large corporation and then going back and getting the MBA, and kind of understanding, "Oh, that's what's going on," or "That's why that makes sense," I think it gave me a perspective I couldn't have gotten any other way.
You can tell students that went straight from undergraduate to graduate school because it's all theoretical — there's no real-world experience there. Some of the nation's highest-rated MBA programs, I think the way they grant admission now is on a delayed basis. Work for a couple of years, show us you've done something important and then come back.
BT: So you honed your business understanding through your MBA studies and then in the workplace. Where did your commitment to community service come from?
Ness: As a young boy growing up, I can still remember my dad coming home and then having to go out to a United Good Neighbors board meeting in the evening. And I also remember my mother worked for the Junior Service League. They had a thrift store, and her shift was on Saturday mornings, and oftentimes, I would go with her. So, we just kind of grew up saying, 'We're pretty fortunate and lots of folks aren't, and our job is to make the places where we live better and help folks that need it the most.'
B.T.: You have a very interesting range of not-for-profits you work with. What drives you or guides you to get involved with certain groups?
Ness: It has to be something that resonates with me personally. As an example, the theater deal, our youngest son is actually an actor. So that resonated with both my wife, Terry, and I.
One of the things I find most beneficial about these not-for-profits is you meet a group of people you likely would not have met otherwise. As I look back over the years, some of our most important relationships that Terry and I have now were created from people we met at not-for-profit organizations.
B.T.: Do you ever get to a point where you find you have to say no because so many not-for-profits are seeking your involvement?
Ness: Oh, absolutely. What we really try not to do is spread ourselves too thin and then just do a half-way job on a whole bunch of different things. The good news is that my company supports these kinds of time commitments and efforts. One of the things I love is being out in the community and having someone that I may not know come up to me and say, "Oh, you're from Standard. Gosh, we have so-and-so from Standard on our board and they've made such a difference." I love that.
One of the things I require is that every officer from this company ... serve on a not-for-profit board. I'm not going to mandate which one, but I want them to experience that. I want them to help make this community a better place to live and bring up our kids, our grandkids. I want (our officers) to be good people. I want them to try new skills and learn new things — and I want them to bring that back into our company.
B.T.: Do you provide them with any suggestions or advice before they begin working with a not-for-profit?
Ness: It's one of those things where people will say, 'Well, wait a minute. I can't be on a board. I don't know anything about that.' So, Bob Speltz and our folks in public affairs actually run a course on how to be a (not-for-profit) board member. We have people come in and talk about the fiduciary responsibilities and the four 'Ts" — time, talent, treasures and your tribe — and explain to them what to expect.
When we designate a new officer here — a responsibility that falls to me — shortly thereafter, I take that person and their boss out to lunch and we talk about what the expectations of an officer in our organization are. One of the things I cover is this requirement to be in service to a not-for-profit. It can be your school district's foundation. It can be Habitat for Humanity. It can be the Food Bank. It can be pets — a million different things.
B.T.: How has community involvement influenced and shaped you as a business leader, and how has it enriched your life and your career?
Ness: This is the community from which we derive our living, but it's also where we bring up our kids, our grandkids, our families. I think we have an obligation to make it better. One of the things we talk about at our company a lot is, we want to be sure to leave it in better shape from a community perspective. We want to make it a good place to come and live, do good work and feel good about it.
B.T.: In 2015, StanCorp Financial Group was acquired by Meiji Yasuda Life Insurance Co. for $5 billion, or $115 per share. Did that change the way you and your employees have been able to be involved in the community in a volunteer capacity, given that the company doesn't belong to a locally based owner anymore?
Ness: We operate extremely independently. ... That was one of our negotiation points during our early time together, that we wanted to continue to operate as a stand-alone entity. They have been absolutely true to their word. What's really cool is, here's a company based in Japan, the third or fourth largest life insurance company there, which is huge. We run a giving campaign every year for our employees. If you say ... "I'd like to take $5,000 from my paycheck and give it to Oregon Food Bank," I'll match that dollar for dollar. So, your $5,000 turns into $10,000. The parent company matches it again, so your $5,000 becomes $15,000. We just finished our campaign a few weeks ago, and we're going to send over $5.1 million to over 1,900 not-for-profits. I love that about our employees who want to give back to organizations and efforts that are really important to them. And I also like the company saying, "If that's important to you ... then we're going to put our dollars right next to yours because it's also important to us." It's the closest thing to a money-making machine there is.
B.T.: Did you have a mentor who influenced you and shaped your philosophy about leadership?
Ness: A mentor who was here for only a short time said, "You're going to have a lot of bosses in your career. That's a really good thing. The first thing you want to do is find out what they do that works, that helps get the work done — you want to incorporate that into you. But most importantly, you also want to find out what they do that doesn't work or that causes friction. Learn from that and make sure you don't incorporate that into yourself."
The other big impact, I was very close to my grandfather (Paul McCulloch). When I was graduating from college, he said ... "There are really only three things you need to remember. Number one is to be as honest as the day is long. Call it the way it is and tell the truth. Number two is hard work. You've to work hard, but there's always going to be somebody paying you. You never, ever want them to think, 'Am I getting my money's worth?'... And his third comment, he used the word gradualism. He said, 'You're going to be impatient. Just relax, stay calm. Let things unfold in their own time. Let them come to you and you'll be amazed at what will happen." That was pretty good advice from an old man to a young kid all those many years ago.
B.T.: And did you follow your grandfather's advice?
Ness: I think I did. At least, I tried to.
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