Doing good through the art of the deal

From the time he was tall enough to pick an orange, Tom Grant has been making deals. He worked in his dad’s San Gabriel Valley citrus grove as a boy, spent 14 years in the Navy supply corps and reserves and ran his own contracting business for nearly 40 years.

Now 84, retired and living in Encinitas, Grant has refocused his deal-making expertise on the philanthropic world. In 2005, he and his wife, Mary Ellen, gave $1 million to kick-start the campaign for a new critical care center at Scripps Memorial Hospital Encinitas. And recently — in memory of Mary Ellen, who died in June 2015 — Grant gave a $100,000 matching grant to the Angels Foster Family Network. His goal was to inspire other donors to help him transform the small nonprofit’s fortunes.

Grant calls his timely donations “make it happen” opportunities.

“I understood from an early age that when things are wrong, they need to be fixed,” he said. “When I see a need, I make it happen. Opportunities come in all kinds of covers, both business and philanthropic.”

In the case of Scripps, Grant had medical issues that landed him more than once in the Encinitas hospital’s emergency room, where he saw first-hand its critical need for expansion and upgrading. And with Angels Foster Family Network, he saw how quickly a group of committed donors could improve the outcome for San Diego foster kids.

“I like to do financial engineering where money can be an incentive,” he said. “Our gift was matching, where every dollar I donate is ‘hocus pocus, magic wand’ turned into $2. That’s just good business.”

Grant’s gift — announced at the Angels gala May 20 in Carlsbad and matched that night by a combined 200 donors — was the largest single gift in the organization’s history, said Jeff Wiemann, executive director. The 18-year-old organization provides services for 85 San Diego foster families. With this new money, Wiemann said Angels can now recruit another 20 to 25 families.

“This gift is transformational,” Wiemann said. “It will truly accelerate our growth.”

Grant grew up in Redlands where he said he was his “dad’s shadow,” learning the value of hard work and ethical business practices from the ground up. Eight days after he graduated from Redlands High School, the Korean War began. Rather than face induction into the Army, he negotiated a deal to serve in the U.S. Navy Reserve while studying business at the University of Redlands.

“Thanks to my dad, I understood the significance of a deal, a good deal and a better deal. I took the better deal,” he said.

At the university he met fellow student Mary Ellen. They married 10 days after he graduated in 1954. Their nearly 61-year marriage produced three children, eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

In 1959, Grant started his own business, Grant General Contractors, and in 1980 he brought his son, Jim, on board. Two years later, Grant moved his family and business to North County, and when he was forced to retire for medical reasons in 1997, Jim took the helm of the Carlsbad business and bought him out.

Jim Grant said he and his older brother Bill (now an orthopedic surgeon in Virginia) grew up much like their father did, with a hands-on education in business. Jim started working at age 11 and by their mid-teens, both brothers were toting tools and lumber on job sites.

“The values he taught us were to always do what you say you’re going to do and walk a straight line,” Jim said.

It wasn’t until after Grant reluctantly retired that he put his mind to giving back. When he identified the need for the new emergency room at Scripps Encinitas, making it happen became what he calls his “supplemental job.”

Not only did the Grants give the first donation toward building the $94 million critical care wing that opened in 2014, they also gave tirelessly of their time. In 2008, the hospital honored Mary Ellen with a Distinguished Achievement Award for the countless hours she volunteered in its thrift shop.

When she passed away last year, Grant said he wanted to find a way to memorialize her. Jim Grant had the perfect solution, Angels Foster Family Network, which he and his wife, Kim, have supported for several years.

“Mom’s life was at home. Her whole life was devoted to being a great mom,” said Jim, who lives in Encinitas. “Angels seemed like the perfect memorial and when I brought it up with Dad, it resonated with him.”

As he did with Scripps Encinitas, Grant said he didn’t commit to giving to Angels until he studied the organization’s finances and felt confident the right man was in charge. Angels’ Wiemann, who has worked in the nonprofit and for-profit fields for nearly 20 years, is also a Navy veteran.

“Tom is an amazing man just like his son, which of course makes perfect sense,” Wiemann said. “They both believe in working hard, doing what is right for all involved and selflessly giving back to their community. At Angels we know every person who interacts with a child has the opportunity to make an important difference in their life. Tom embodies this belief .”

Founded in 1998, San Diego-based Angels Family Foster Network operates on a budget of $2.35 million, of which 82 percent goes to program expenses. The program provides $1 in donated services for every $2 in federal funding provided to foster parents, who will typically care for four to six children. The money raised is used to recruit and train foster parents and provide them with case managers for 24-hour counseling and support.

As a show of how valuable these foster parents find Angels’ services, Wiemann said they give about 50 percent of the organization’s donations. “They’re strong believers in how the program has helped them,” he said.

Grant said his late wife was a “mother par excellence” to their children — Bill, Jim and youngest child Mary, also of Encinitas — so he knows she would be very proud of the Angels donation in her name. He thinks the organization operates on the same guiding principles that he has always followed in business and in life:

“Do the right thing, pay your bills and the cream will rise to the top.”

— Pam Kragen is a writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune.