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A centennial milestone: Reflecting with Kresge Foundation’s Amy Robinson

June 21, 2024 / 7 min read

Plante Moran and The Kresge Foundation were each formed 100 years ago by visionary founders who put people and values first. Here’s how a strong organizational culture can bring long-term success to any organization.

The United States was a very different place in 1924. President Calvin Coolidge made the first nationally broadcast presidential radio address, George Gershwin wrote “Rhapsody in Blue,” and it was the golden age of silent movies. The economy was shifting from an agricultural base to an industrial one, and Detroit was one of the fastest-growing, large cities in the world.

Against this backdrop, Elorion Plante established a small accounting firm in downtown Detroit, that — with the subsequent addition of Frank Moran — started the partnership that became today’s Plante Moran. That same year, Sebastian Kresge — the founder of the S.S. Kresge Company, one of the 20th century’s largest discount retail organizations — commemorated the 25th anniversary of his company by establishing The Kresge Foundation, which today is one of the wealthiest charitable foundations in the world.

It’s special for an organization to reach the century milestone, and to honor our organizations’ collective achievements, I invited Amy Robinson, vice president, CFO, and chief administrative officer of The Kresge Foundation, to discuss some of the factors that go into creating successful, long-enduring organizations.

Amy joined Kresge 29 years ago, holding various accounting and financial management roles until being named CFO in 2009. In her current role, she manages the facilities, finance, grants management, and information technology teams for the foundation — a terrific perch from which to understand an amazing organization that has withstood world wars and vast social, economic, and technological change.

Amy and I are both awestruck at what’s been achieved over the generations of our organizations’ existence. In my case, I’ve had the privilege of leading an organization that went from a local, two-partner public accounting firm to a multinational, full-service professional services firm with over 3,800 staff. Amy has had the privilege of overseeing the finances of a not-for-profit organization that began with an initial gift of $1.3 million, the endowment has grown to over $4 billion.

As we reflected on 100 years of history, the first thing that stood out was the cultural similarity between our organizations — both are people-focused and based on strong, lasting values. 

At Plante Moran, Elorion Plante and Frank Moran (a philosophy major in college) set out to create a “people-first” firm based on the golden rule: treat others as you want to be treated. He and Elorion called it their “grand experiment.” A century later, ask a Plante Moran staff member what their favorite thing is about the firm, and the answer will invariably include the culture — the people, our “We Care” approach, and the way we work together.

As an organization dedicated to helping people and progressing humanity, it’s not surprising that The Kresge Foundation has a similar story.

“We have a culture based on deep respect for each other,” says Amy. “We’re fortunate to be in an environment where we go into work every day and are fully engaged with people.”

We’re fortunate to be in an environment where we go into work every day and are fully engaged with people.

She points out that Kresge, like most successful long-standing organizations, is constantly focused on building culture and adapting it to the times we live in. 

“We’re continuously articulating, outlining, and reshaping what it’s like to live our values in the context of the social environment we’re currently operating in. If you look at all the change that’s happened over the last 100 years, we’ve had to change to react to that. Whether it was going through world wars, or social justice movements, or the recent racial reckoning around the murder of George Floyd — all of that has shaped and changed our culture.”

Amy says in recent years the foundation’s programmatic work has seismically shifted to these different areas of interest and a focus on equity and outcomes.

“And to reinforce that focus, we updated our tagline to: ‘Expanding equity and opportunity in America’s cities.’” 

With $4 billion to manage and a mission that lasts in perpetuity, Kresge has adapted over the decades to create advanced philanthropic partnerships where the foundation is able to provide long-term, patient capital to its grantees.

“While we make a lot of smaller, impactful grants, we’ve expanded and changed our tools from just making grants to also offering complex financial instruments like loan guarantees, equity investments, or low interest loans on top of the grant, allowing us to come at a problem in different ways that not a lot of organizations have the capacity to do. This patient capital has enabled us to be more responsive to partner needs.”

So, what has working for 29 years at a century-old organization taught Amy about leadership? 

“I’ve found that, from the start of my career to now, I’m a very different person. My core values are there, but I’m different,” she says. “My biggest lesson? As a leader, I need to understand those who I lead. I have a sticky [note] on my wall that says, ‘True collaboration is understanding others’ constraints.’ As a leader, I’ve found that understanding what the constraints are on the other side gives me the ability to help our team shift and move much easier.”

As a leader, I’ve found that understanding what the constraints are on the other side gives me the ability to help our team shift and move much easier.

One of the most important leadership traits Amy has developed is making space for staff to learn and take risks.

“Sometimes that means letting them fail, and that’s not easy for me because I want to come in and be supportive,” she says.

I couldn’t agree more. As I reflect on my own career, the most memorable mentors and coaches I had were people who pushed me out of my comfort zone. They’d encourage me to do more and get involved in things. If I expressed doubt, they’d say, “Give it a try.” That’s when you find out you can do it. The lesson? People are capable of so much more than they realize.

As our organizations celebrate our respective centennials, what would our founders think of them today? Despite the huge changes in the world over the past century, I think they’d be amazed at how the foundation of what they created is still in place. Our organizations became much larger, but the original philosophies, values, and focus on people remain the same.

Elorion Plante and Frank Moran’s vision was to create an organization focused on people, managed by guidelines as opposed to rules, and staffed by talented people who, if well taken care of, would in turn take care of the clients. That was their vision, and that’s exactly what we have today. I think he’d be proud of it.

Amy has similar thoughts about Kresge: “Sebastian Kresge talked a lot about the importance of having a good team to make his stores successful. And to be successful, you must train and retain good people and provide excellent benefits, which is what the foundation is doing today.”

Amy says he’d also see a strong commitment to his original values.

“He’d see an entrepreneurial spirit at the foundation: we’re creative and don’t shy away from complicated problems and taking risks — which, as an entrepreneur, he’d appreciate. But most importantly, he’d see that we adhered to the original commitments, which were to use his wealth to promote human progress and make the world a better place than he found it.”

To make it to a century, an organization needs a great culture. It establishes the “why” that drives its people and mission forward, and provides an environment where people want to stay and grow. With this, a principled approach to business, and a strong focus on people, any organization has the opportunity to stand the test of time.

To make it to a century, an organization needs a great culture. It establishes the “why” that drives its people and mission forward.

Leadership personality profile

Your leadership approach in one word: Empathetic

The leadership quality you most admire in others: Being a trusted partner.

Your best piece of business advice: Know your values, stick to them.

What you look for when you hire: Alignment with The Kresge Foundation’s values and technical expertise

To be an effective leader, you can't: Do a job well that doesn’t play to your strengths (technical or human skills) or align with your personal values, high emotional intelligence is a must! 

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