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Karl Norton: Lending a Hand

Karl Norton ©2017 M-Buck Studio, LLC

Karl R. Norton is a vice president with more than 15 years of banking experience with Comerica Bank in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has served Comerica’s Special Assets Group in West Michigan for nearly 14 years, handling workout deals from the Middle Market, Small Business, and Private Banking departments originated in the bank’s Outstate region.  

Norton is president of the West Michigan TMA Chapter and is active in his community, serving on the finance committee for First United Methodist Church and as a volunteer with Circles Grand Rapids. He holds a bachelor’s degree in finance with a minor in economics from Western Michigan University.

Q: How did you gravitate into workouts and that type of activity? 

Norton: I started with Comerica in June of 2000, and as part of our credit training program, part of my first rotation was with our Special Assets group. I was intrigued by the diversity of the credits. We deal with small businesses all the way up to large syndications.

There are similarities in the deals, yet every deal is different. One day you may be working on a funeral home and another day a heavy equipment lessor. I’ve been in workouts pretty much ever since.

Q: What have been some of your most gratifying or favorite cases along the way?

Norton: Simply put, every time I’m able to work with a customer and we’re able to come up with a positive resolution that leaves them stronger, I get quite a bit of gratification. I recall there was one customer that faced a lot of challenges just before the economic downturn when they had opened a second location. We were able to work with them and help them get to the other side, and they’re now extremely profitable. 

Q: What did that involve?

Norton: They were a seasonal business. Their second location was not completed in time to start the season for the business, so that really put some significant constraints on their cash flow and delayed the opening, which really impacted them.

The fact that we had multiple stakeholders with different levels of debt involved also caused some issues, because everybody was acting in their own best interests as opposed to acting as one unit. We got the customer to bring in a consultant. As part of that, we were able to get the debt restructured and get all the stakeholders on the same page and working toward a common goal.

Q: That’s often the hardest part—getting everybody to work together. How did you go about that?

Norton: In this case it was getting everyone to hear the same message that wasn’t passed along from someone else. We got everyone in the same room. Everyone saw the financial statements. Everyone saw the report of what the turnaround consultant was recommending. From that point, since everyone was looking at the same information, it made it a lot clearer for them to understand the path that was being presented and how everyone fit in that path. It wasn’t easy. It didn’t happen in one meeting. But it definitely set the process in a positive direction. 

Q: What role has TMA played in your career? When did you get involved in TMA, and how has your involvement evolved?

Norton: I’ve been a member of the West Michigan TMA Chapter since July 2010. TMA membership has enabled me to stay connected with the industry. West Michigan is not as big as some of the other markets. TMA has allowed me to meet other debt providers and consultants that I wouldn’t otherwise meet unless they called me. More specifically, the West Michigan TMA Chapter has afforded me the chance to take a leadership role. I’ve worked my way up from regular board member to treasurer to vice president and now to president of our chapter.

We’re not a very big chapter, but we have a very passionate board. We’re always striving to improve and to grow. I think we have come up with quite a few great ideas that I believe some of the other chapters are copying.

Q: You had mentioned that the board credits you and another individual as being instrumental in getting the chapter through some difficult times. All new chapters experience some growing pains. Can you talk about some of the challenges the West Michigan Chapter encountered along the way?

Norton: We’re only about 80 members strong, which can make it hard to find enough people willing to serve on the board. We have struggled as the turnaround industry has evolved over the past few years, because we’ve lost some key board members to transfers out of the turnaround industry to other industries.

While we have been around since ’08, we have only been a stand-alone chapter since ’15. Before that, we had been part of the Detroit Chapter. As a stand-alone chapter, we are now more reliant on our board, as opposed to getting additional help from the Detroit board. Keeping board positions filled was a challenge, which would then allow us to have really good educational events and other events that are expected of a TMA chapter.

Rachel Hillegonds and I worked hard worked hard to keep our corporate sponsorships up, which help fund our chapter. We were able to grow our board. We’ve added a few more positions now—we’re up to eight members on the board—and we have a pretty good feeder program to keep growing the board as board members rotate off.

The support and the energy that we now have at the board, I think, shows in our event attendance. Most recently we had a lunch series over the winter, and I believe our average attendance was more than 60, which I think is just phenomenal based on the fact we have 80 members and we draw from pretty much half the state of Michigan. I’m very proud of our chapter for that and the people who serve with me on the board.

I’m an amateur woodworker, and I enjoy building furniture. Most recently, with help from my dad, we built my daughter’s changing table and a matching side table for the nursery.

Q: What advice would you have for someone who was new to the industry or was thinking about getting into the industry?

Norton: If you’re new to the industry, I’d encourage you to keep in mind that turnaround is more than liquidations. There’s more than one way to handle a deal and get positive results. It’s one of the great things about it—there is no one way to handle a situation.

For others, I would say if you love challenges and helping others through tough times, this is where you want to be. Then, from a local perspective, many of the businesses here are family-owned, so when you’re a lender, a consultant, or other service provider who’s being brought into the family business, they’re really bringing you into the family. You have to stay objective and yet compassionate because it’s family.

Q: If you could start your career over would you do anything differently?

Norton: My career here with Comerica has evolved better than I would have ever expected. If you had told me in April 2000 after I graduated from college this is where you’re going to be in June of 2017, I don’t think this would have been on my radar.

Q: What about outside the office? What are you passionate about when you’re not at work?

Norton: When I’m not at the office, my big things are family, church, volunteering, cooking, and University of Michigan sports.

Q: In that order?

Norton: Well, maybe in a different order on football Saturdays.

Q: Can you talk a little about your volunteer activities? You had mentioned Circles Grand Rapids and your involvement with that group. Can you explain a little about what it is and how it works?

Norton: I can’t take full credit for getting involved in this. My wife Angela has been an extremely strong influence on our family in supporting organizations that address poverty and help to solve those problems. 

We started out with Family Promise of Grand Rapids, which provides family housing for those who are unable to find housing and otherwise would need to go to a shelter. Usually if a boy is over 12, he would have to go to a men’s shelter. Family Promise of Grand Rapids establishes a weekly rotation of churches or other organizations to house entire families together and help provide services.

That involvement has since evolved to us working with a group called Circles Grand Rapids, which is an organization that is helping individuals overcome poverty by giving them the skills and the structure around them so that they can ask questions to help them do better, whether that involves helping them prepare for interviews, learn how to write resumes, understand what lease documentation looks like, buy a car, or know if they’re getting in trouble with a cell phone plan. The whole idea is that you can help this person not by telling them what to do but by providing a circle around them so that if they have questions, they feel comfortable about asking.

From what I understand, this has been deemed one of the best programs around for getting people out of poverty. It’s only been in Grand Rapids for about 1½ years, so we’re just starting, but we have seen some successes. Right now, I believe our capacity is five to 10 families, so it’s not very big. But you have to start somewhere.

Q: What might people who only know you in your professional capacity be most surprised to learn about you?

Norton: I’m an amateur woodworker, and I enjoy building furniture. Most recently, with help from my dad, we built my daughter’s changing table and a matching side table for the nursery. 

Q: Very nice. Is it a hobby that you picked up from your dad?

Norton: It was something I picked up from the family, and it’s evolved since then.

Q: What’s your next big project?

Norton: I believe it’s going to be a coffee table.

Q: Is there anything that we haven’t talked about that you’d like to add?

Norton: As a workout officer for Comerica, I want to help companies turn around and succeed, but we’re also active in the community. Even though I am a workout officer, I’m still vested in the community.

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