J. Barry Griswell was born in 1949 in Atlanta. His father, who battled alcoholism, had very little education. He worked in a factory and sold used cars. By the time Griswell was four, his parents had divorced, remarried, and divorced again. After that, he saw his father only during occasional weekend visits.
Griswell’s mother, June, who was married at the age of 16, worked hard to raise her two sons and provide for them. During World War II, she was a riveter on B-29s. After the divorce, she worked as a PBX operator for the Atlanta Police Department. One year later, she became the switchboard operator for a transport company, where she spent the next 30 years. After a full day at the trucking company, she worked at night as a receptionist for an emergency clinic. “My mother had to be everything to us,” said Griswell. “But she was a survivor. She taught me the value of hard work and doing the right thing.”
Even so, Griswell’s mother had a difficult time providing for her family. The family was often forced to leave an apartment because she could not pay the rent. In his first 16 years, they moved 16 times. They stayed in the same area, but the constant upheaval and lack of security took its toll on the family. Griswell’s elementary school years were difficult. He had a hard time reading and had to attend summer school to keep up with his peers. He and his brother were latchkey kids for most of their childhood; no one was there to help them with homework or to even make sure they were doing it.
Griswell began working at an early age. He and his brother had a paper route, and he worked as a grocery bagboy. In high school, he was a lifeguard and worked at the trucking company where his mother was employed. He loaded trucks on weekends, making an impressive $3 an hour. That job allowed him to buy a car and take care of his own expenses throughout high school, college, and graduate school.
When Griswell was 12, his mother remarried and had another son. But her second husband was an abusive alcoholic, and five years later, she divorced him. About the same time, during his early adolescence, Griswell became involved in the Boys Club of Atlanta. He credited the organization with keeping him out of trouble and off the streets. Yet Griswell said he has few negative feelings about his adolescence. “I have a positive outlook on life, which I think is half the battle,” he said. “Those early years were difficult, but I had many positives. I never went without a meal or a Christmas. My mother got me involved in church, and that became a constant part of my life. I never had a time when I felt sorry for myself.”
By eighth grade, Griswell was six feet four inches tall and well on his way to his adult height of six feet nine inches. He became an avid basketball player and a star of his high school team. The first member of his family to attend college, Griswell earned both athletic and academic scholarships to Berry College, a private Christian school in northern Georgia that required its students to work on campus and attend chapel. To supplement his scholarships, Griswell worked 20 hours a week in the school bookstore.
Griswell planned to play professional basketball or, if that did not work out, to be a teacher and coach. During his sophomore year, however, an economics course changed his direction. He graduated with a degree in business administration in 1971. He worked that summer with the trucking company and then enrolled in graduate school at Florida’s Stetson University, earning a master’s degree in finance in less than two years.
In 1972, he accepted a position in a management development program at Metropolitan Life. Over the next 10 years, he was promoted steadily, eventually becoming CEO of MetLife Marketing Corp and finally chairman and CEO of Principal Financial Group. Griswell later became president of the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines.
Griswell said success is not about achieving monetary goals or the highest rung in a corporation. “I think success is measured by how much you give toward achieving something worthwhile. If you can look back on your life and know that you gave it your best shot, then that can be counted as a success,” he said. “Doing your best at whatever it is you choose to do will help you to achieve more than you ever thought possible.”
Griswell believed in helping others to learn and grow. “My advice is to never see yourself as a person with limits. If you do, then let mentors help you to go beyond those limits. Be open to the idea that you can achieve great things if you want to. Find your true potential and move toward it. That’s a great philosophy. I have lived my life with an attitude of taking responsibility, being accountable for what I do, and doing the right thing.”