Jeremy Grunin in front of the Grunin Arts and Education Building, Red Bank, NJ.
NEW JERSEY: The name Jeremy Grunin was hardly known in Monmouth County five years ago. Today, there is hardly anyone who doesn’t know Jeremy. He is President of the Grunin Foundation, and is leading the organization to make significant impact in Monmouth and Ocean Counties, improving the quality of life for all members of our community, and using philanthropy to drive economic excellence.
To date, the Grunin Foundation has invested $23 million in the Central Jersey Shore, with another $15 million committed. Some of the more recent highlights are their $2 million gift to Count Basie Center for the Arts for The Grunin Arts and Education Building, a hub for research, nonprofit collaboration, arts education and a cutting edge performance space; a $3 million gift to Hackensack Meridian Health Meridian Health Foundation, to create patient care technician and apprenticeship programs; and a $3 million gift to Monmouth Medical Center for the Linda Grunin Simulation Lab and Learning Center. This is a joint partnership between Monmouth University and Monmouth Medical Center. The Linda Grunin Sim Lab provides state-of-the-art training to Monmouth Medical Center’s medical staff and first responders. There are many more projects and partnerships that you can find on the Grunin Foundation’s website.
In addition to running the Grunin Foundation, Jeremy serves in leadership roles on many nonprofit boards. He is the Chairman of Count Basie Center for the Arts, Past Chairman of Fulfill, and is a Trustee of the Center for Non-Profits. He is also a board member of the YMCA of Greater Monmouth County, Jersey Shore Medical Center Foundation, Meridian Health Foundation, Arts Ed NJ and Monmouth University – and that’s just to name a few. You can read the full list of Jeremy’s board involvement here.
Jeremy isn’t one to sit back and watch – he plays an active role in everything he does. He motivates others and moves initiatives forward, always in a collaborative way. He wants success for the organizations he serves. Jeremy is a connector and brings people to the table who can implement growth initiatives and help the organization thrive. He never pauses in driving economic excellence at the Central Jersey Shore.
TAPinto had the opportunity to meet with Jeremy at his Red Bank office on Bridge Avenue. He also has an office in Toms River. The Red Bank building has a bit of a SoHo feel to it with living space above the office. It’s a quick walk to the restaurant and brewery down the street, dessert shop a few doors over, or Two River Theater across the street.
Jeremy is curious and focused. He is someone who has vast knowledge but always wants to learn more. He is steadfast in his mission, and speaks passionately to it - off the cuff and right on message.
To get to know Jeremy is to realize that he is as real as it gets…he will tell you exactly how it is.
TAPinto: Where did you grow up, and what was childhood like for you?
Jeremy: I grew up an only child in Toms River. My father (Jay) and late mother (Linda) met at NYU Law School. My dad grew up in Brooklyn and my mom in Long Branch. They moved to Ocean County in 1970 and I was born in 1973. My parents had a busy private law practice in town and worked long hours so my maternal grandparents helped raise me to a large extent.
While I was not a child who got everything he wanted, I did not lack anything I needed. We ate in restaurants three times a week, which was a treat, but my parents really didn’t believe in buying things like toys. I was not the kid that got the Big Wheel or even the Star Wars action figures – instead, I read The New York Times!
My mom practiced matrimonial law and my father, real-estate law. It just so happened that in the 1980s, Ocean County was the second fastest-growing county in the country behind Orange County, California. Real estate was booming and this kept my dad busy with an average of seven to eight real estate closings a day. My parents did very well and invested every dollar into the stock market. Simultaneously, they were landowners in Toms River, and were successful with that as well.
I never realized we had money. I went to Toms River High School East for my first two years then transferred to Lakewood Prep in Howell. I then tried college at Rutgers, for a cup of coffee...I was not cut out for it. I left college, then left Toms River and moved to Middlesex County, where I stayed for about 20 years.
TAPinto: Were your parents upset you left college? What happened over the 20 years in Middlesex County?
Jeremy: My parents originally offered me a new car if I did NOT begin college – that’s how well they knew I was not cut out for it. I did well in school, but I never studied. So no, they were neither upset nor shocked about that. I moved out and had nothing except an old, used car I bought with money from my grandparents. I was living in a frat house in Trenton, but I was not in a fraternity. I had no money and needed to pay my rent. I had to get a job, so I became a waiter at Olive Garden. I was the absolute worst waiter, dropping items on people, losing my balance – you name it. My low point was when I spilled drinks all over everyone at a table, and they left my tip in a full glass of water. It was bad.
Olive Garden was in a plaza right next to Nobody Beats the Wiz. I used to go to the Wiz all the time and just like every 19-year-old kid, I dreamed about buying all of the great electronics. A friend worked there who eventually convinced me to apply. I left Olive Garden and during my first year at the Wiz, I made over $100,000 because as it turned out, I was great at sales. In 1993, I was making a good living because of the commission, and was offered a promotion to management. I was now a 20 year-old manager at the Wiz, making LESS money with a salary of only $28,000. However, on some level, I was mature enough to realize a management position was better for my future because I knew I wasn’t going to stay in that position forever.
TAPinto: So, then what was next for the 20-something Jeremy?
Jeremy: In 1997, I got a new job as the youngest general manager at CompUSA. I was running a $52 million store in Edison. We had 120 employees and I was doing great. Retail paid differently then. And I met my now ex-wife at that job. We married when I was 27 and she was 21. Although we are no longer married today, she is my best friend and our three children (two girls and a boy who are now teenagers) are my greatest accomplishment.
I was focused on balancing my career and raising a young family. After CompUSA, I began working at Circuit City. I became a district manager and worked in NYC and NJ. Eventually, I left and became a district manager for Borders Books, running their Philadelphia locations.
TAPinto: What lessons did you learn, and hurdles did you overcome during that time?
I went through a rough patch in 2008. In order to pay my bills, I had to supplement my full-time job by throwing papers for the Star Ledger. Then, the worst came in 2011 when I got laid off from my full-time job at Borders. My wife was home taking care of the kids and I was scared. My full-time job became looking for a full-time job. Every day I woke up totally stressed about money and searching for a job.
I was unemployed for several weeks, and finally ended up getting a job as a director for NY Sports Club, where I successfully ran 40 health clubs in NY and NJ - which is funny because I’m not the poster for physical fitness.
My pitch when I interviewed for the job was “I’m your client, I’m your members, I’m the everyday person. I know how to talk to your customers.” I also had a success story to speak about, because I was once 330 pounds and had gastric-bypass surgery. So, at that point in 2013, I was 100 pounds lighter and could relate to others wanting to achieve a similar goal. I was working again, and my wife was a labor and delivery nurse. We were back on our feet. We were your regular everyday soccer parents, raising young kids. Life was good.
TAPinto: Ok, 2013 is not that long ago. Where’s the jump from NY Sports Club executive and soccer fields, to philanthropist and Grunin Foundation?
Jeremy: Well, in 2013 I got a call from my dad. He was very upset and told me that he and my mom needed me to come home. Unfortunately, my mother had a brain event which caused her to fall and hit her head. She never fully recovered. My dad asked me to move back to town and help him with the family business. My then wife and I had a very significant decision to make.
We eventually packed up and moved into a home on the same street as my parents, and I started to work with my dad who was focusing a lot on taking care of my mom.
TAPinto: So how did the Grunin Foundation come about?
Jeremy: The Foundation existed but had no real name. No one knew who we were. Our idea was that I would run the Foundation, establish our brand and make a splash. We hired our first executive director and started off geo-focused in Toms River. We then trickled into Ocean County, but had an eye on Monmouth County as well. We expanded into Monmouth County just three years ago and that grew very quickly.
Recently, we went through a rebranding process to re-establish and redirect how we are viewed in the state and beyond, and rolled it out last year. Going through the process brought us closer together as a Foundation, too. I could not ask for a better team. We are only as good as our team and fortunately, we have a really great one.
TAPinto: Grunin Foundation is now donating millions of dollars to nonprofits and charities in Monmouth County. Looking beyond the mission statement of “improving the quality of life for all members of our community by using philanthropy to drive economic excellence at the Central Jersey Shore.” What then is the driver of the Grunin Foundation?
Jeremy Grunin – People think everyone has an ulterior motive. I like putting it right out there. I like transparency. It is one of our core values as a Foundation and also one of mine, personally. No one knew who we were seven years ago. The whole point of the Foundation was to build a name and reputation, to enable us to get a seat at the table with the right people. These discussions open doors to investments to help us make more money through our for-profit arm of our family of organizations – Grunin Holdings. I want to do better and I want everyone else to do better at the same time. The profits earned through Grunin Holdings enable Grunin Foundation to invest that money back into Monmouth and Ocean Counties. And more investing into the community benefits everyone. So goes the saying: “A Rising Tide Lifts all Boats.”
TAPinto: Jeremy talk to me about your passion for lifting the arts:
Jeremy: Arts is a means to an end. I believe the arts and exposure to the arts open up the minds of children and build creativity. The arts help kids become more creative and better problem solvers. We are building the executives of tomorrow. Most of them will have careers we don’t even know about yet. Think about it – there was a time when we didn’t know what Google or Facebook were. The arts help make minds more flexible, dynamic and open to new learning. Arts and education represent two incredibly important pillars in our Foundation’s commitment to driving economic excellence. Investments in this space, such as our work with Count Basie Center for the Arts, is something we are really excited about.
TAPinto: As the former Chairman of Fulfill, can you talk about the importance of the organization:
Jeremy: Fulfill is an amazing organization. What a lot of folks don’t realize is that most of the people coming to food banks are the working poor that just can’t get over the hump. Many are working 60 hours a week and have to decide whether they will pay their electric bill or buy food. Most of America is one paycheck away from being heavily in debt or in financial trouble, and that’s reality. We still have people who can’t pay for healthcare, can’t afford a car and sadly can’t afford food. Fulfill is great at shining a light on food insecurity and what that really means.
TAPinto: Talk about the community purpose of the Grunin Foundation and the infrastructure.
Jeremy: Grunin Foundation advocates for businesses and nonprofits to work together in a thriving community where everyone has access to an abundance of exemplary arts, education, healthcare and economic opportunities. The Grunin Foundation is driving economic excellence at the Central Jersey Shore by assisting with capacity building for non-profits. That is a large part of what we do. We don’t just hand money out. We work to provide nonprofits and nonprofit leaders with the tools, knowledge, and support to accelerate their impact. There needs to be a plan for impact. We learned the hard way by gifting money to an organization that did not have the infrastructure in place to utilize the funding properly. We realized that we needed to help organizations cut through the noise to become more effective. So we eventually created Grunin Capacity and the Catapult Institute, to help nonprofits in this area in addition to just providing funds.
TAPinto: Jeremy, I became more acquainted with you while working with different charities. I know we are honoring you at the next Monmouth Park Charity Kentucky Derby event. What do you like best about Monmouth Park Charity Fund?
Jeremy: Monmouth Park Charity has its heart in the right place and it mobilizes the all-star roster of Monmouth County. It’s the cream of the crop in the philanthropic community and it’s the folks who make the impact. I like that they help as many nonprofits as they can. Being recognized by the Monmouth Park Charity is a real validation of the work we are doing in the community. And being able to come together and celebrate at Derby Day is an honor!
TAPinto: What’s a favorite evening out for you? Hobbies, books, etc?
Jeremy: For an evening out, I enjoy entertainment. I would say a night in the city with a good restaurant, a Broadway show, drink at a bar afterwards…somewhere to listen to live music. I don’t have a lot of hobbies, I don’t normally binge-watch shows, except during the pandemic I binged a few seasons. I play Fantasy Football with my son. I enjoyed coaching soccer for my kids in the past. I never used to read many books but I recently started reading a few.
TAPinto: 2020 was a challenging year to say the least. How has it impacted your stride and what did you do to pivot?
Pivot is certainly the buzz word of 2020. When COVID-19 hit, we started with what would make the quickest impact – keeping sponsorship dollars in place even if events were cancelled, switching our Catapult Institute events to an online platform, funding Zoom accounts for local nonprofits for as long as we need to remain virtual and providing grants to nonprofit organizations on the frontlines during this health crisis. We provided a $500,000 grant to the major healthcare systems in Monmouth and Ocean Counties, allowing them to disperse the funds to their local hospitals as they saw fit. We also partnered with the Monmouth County Freeholders to open free COVID-19 testing sites in more densely populated, higher risk neighborhoods in Monmouth County.
The effects of the pandemic on health and education were pretty obvious, but not everyone realizes the toll it’s taking on the arts sector – and how that trickles down to the economy and almost everything else in life. During the spring, I had a virtual meeting with colleagues in philanthropy and representatives from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. From that meeting came the idea of establishing a fund to help ensure the survival of the state’s arts, cultural and historical sector during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. On behalf of the Grunin Foundation, I put up the initial gift of $250,000 and the New Jersey Arts & Culture Recovery Fund was created. We are nearing $4 million and counting. The growth of this fund is crucial to the recovery and future sustainability of the sector.
In addition to the health crisis, we have been actively listening to the racial justice and equity discussions going on in our community and the nation. We know we don’t have all the answers, but each of us at the Foundation is doing the work internally (both individually and as a team) to learn how we can be an effective part of the solution and help foster the dialogue within our communities, working towards a more just, equitable and inclusive society.
TAPinto: What is next for the Grunin Foundation?
Jeremy: We will continue to live our mission to improve the quality of life for all residents of the Central Jersey Shore and to drive economic excellence. We will listen to our nonprofits and our community and provide the support they need. We will continue learning and pledge to do the work to advance racial equity.
The challenges we have faced in 2020 are only the tip of the iceberg, but we have an incredible community of nonprofits, business leaders and residents who enable us to do the work that we do. We are hopeful that we are heading towards a brighter, healthier and more equitable future - together.
TAPinto: Jeremy, thank you for sharing your interesting story...it's a great one!