Alumnus Uses Lessons Learned to Run a Successful Business and Give Back to Where it All Started
When Jeff Swallow was 14 and working in the mail room of what had become the family business, he wasn’t sure if college was in his future. After high school, he spent a couple of more years working there as a welder, earning money to pay off a car. It was only after burning himself one too many times that he decided to follow a friend who was attending Lincoln College and had good things to say about the school.
Today, Jeff Swallow, Ph.D., is one of LC’s most accomplished alumni and one of its largest benefactors. In 2009, he became a member of the Lincoln College Board of Trustees. His company, Magnetrol International, Inc., recently contributed $2 million to the school’s “If It Hadn’t Been for Lincoln College” campaign. It may be impossible to accurately measure the impact his gift will have – how many improvements can be made, how many opportunities it will make possible for students and faculty. What is certain is that Lincoln College is dependent on the contributions, large and small, from its alumni and friends, and forever grateful for their kindness.
Behind Jeff’s generosity is a story that traces the familiar arc of the American Dream, but with some unique twists and turns along the way.
Jeff, who admits he didn’t have the strongest academic credentials in high school, began to distinguish himself in the classroom while a student at LC. Yet despite earning a near 4.0 at one point, a defining moment in his educational journey, and perhaps his life, came when he thought he might have derailed all of his hard work in one fell swoop. As with many college students who are living on their own for the first time, Jeff and his friends had been out making mischief and were hiding out in their dorm. As LC security officer Steve Foster approached their room, the young men feared the worst.
But the LC campus has always felt a bit like Mayberry when compared to bigger, bustling universities. And like that town’s wise and compassionate sheriff, Steve knew that justice isn’t always best served by throwing the book at someone. He recognized the fear in the eyes of Jeff and his friends, and knew that that would be enough to deter any future incidents. He let them off with a brief, but stern warning. “I could still be welding if it wasn’t for Steve Foster. That was a turning point for me. But after that I toed the line and I realized that I had something very special that I didn’t want to jeopardize. It was soon there after that Tom called me into his office to talk to me,” Jeff says, still grateful to this day.
Tom Zurkammer was his advisor at the time. Again Jeff feared the worst, thinking that word of his hijinks had made the rounds and he was being called in to explain himself. “He was actually calling me in to tell me how well I was doing and how proud he was,” he recalls.
Today, Jeff remembers those two incidents as the most significant during his Lincoln College years. The personal attention he received taught him important lessons and he developed habits that stayed with him throughout an illustrious academic career. Building upon the associate’s degree he received in 1982, Jeff went on to earn a bachelor’s degree at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois. A certificate in business administration from the University of Illinois, Chicago and the Center for Enterprise Development followed in 1997 and then an executive M.B.A. from Northwestern in 1999. His crowning academic achievement came when he was awarded a Ph.D. from Benedictine University in Organizational Development.
When asked about the drive and discipline necessary to complete so many degrees, Jeff modestly downplays his achievements. “I’d get bored watching TV for two hours after everyone went to bed,” he says.
Throughout his academic pursuits – in fact, throughout practically his entire life – Jeff has been working in the family business.
Magnetrol International, Inc. manufactures process control level and flow instrumentation products to monitor and control flow rates in various applications. Over the years, the company has grown into a global operation with seven manufacturing facilities and nine direct sales offices. They recently expanded into Shanghai and have plans to add operations in India.
Today, Jeff serves as president and CEO of Magnetrol. Throughout his career at the company he has held a myriad of positions, including manager, inside sales engineer, computer programmer, machinist and welder. It started, as many corporate success stories of lore do, in the mail room. “I was affectionately known as the ‘mail girl’ when I was fourteen. I loved doing that job,” he says of the position that was traditionally held by a woman.
From there, continued education and a dogged work ethic kept him moving onward and upward.“Just working 12 to 14 hour days because that’s what was expected,” he says of his secret for success. “That’s what I grew up with and I had very good role models.” Foremost among those role models was his mother, Judy Stevenson.“My mother started working (at Magnetrol) in ’64 to help out her aunt in accounting. In ’74 she became president and in ’78, as we like to say, ’she bought the place,’” Jeff says.
While he was at Northwestern for his M.B.A., Jeff would bring back ideas for streamlining the operations, automating processes and cutting costs to the bone. It was then that his mother had to take him aside and remind him that there is a human element involved when efficiency measures start to eliminate jobs. “Of course today I completely understand it. It’s more what we’re doing for the community and for people’s lives than just seeing how much we can improve the bottom line. It goes beyond the nickels and dimes,” he says.
Jeff’s $2 million gift qualified him to have the Lincoln Center dedicated in his or Magnetrol’s name. He declined, asking instead that a plaque honoring his mother’s memory be placed in the center. This humble gesture, in and of itself, is a fitting tribute to a woman who had a tremendous impact on his life.“She just had this incredible knack for knowing how to do the right thing, in almost every situation,” he says of his mother, who passed away last year. “She really taught me to learn from my experiences, learn from my mistakes, but also to give back and do the right thing.”Now Jeff and his wife, Madeleine, are teaching those same lessons to their three children: Emily, Heston and Connor. The family resides in Naperville.
Looking back on his days at Lincoln College, Jeff offers this advice for students who are just starting out in their adult lives and are still unsure of where they are going.“Don’t lose focus of your dream. You can’t lose sight of why you’re there because once you’re finished and you move on into a career, it’s all worth it.” Jeff’s generous donation is greatly appreciated by everyone at Lincoln College. As for how the money will be used specifically, he trusts that the people who work there on a daily basis will put it to the best possible use. “If it makes it better for the students, then I’m all for it,” he says.
Jeff also realizes that he is in a unique position to make such a large contribution, but would encourage his fellow alums to ’give what they can.’ “The more we give, the more it helps. And the feeling that you get by giving, it’s worth a lot more than money.”