Grand Rapids Symphony President and CEO Peter M. Perez has had a career many would dream of.
As president of Steinway & Sons, world-famous manufacturers of piano, Perez met such famous musicians as Vladimir Horowitz who performed on just one piano that toured with him, which Steinway kept for safekeeping during the off season.
“When Horowitz would come back to his piano, I would be there when he went to the basement to play it,” Perez recalled from his five-year tenure from 1977 to 1982.
During his time as only the second person to run the family business founded in 1853, Perez oversaw a complete rebuild of the White House’s Steinway grand piano, returning it to Washington D.C. in 1981.
“That was one of the happiest days of my life,” he recalled with a laugh.
Nearly 30 years later, while serving as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Manufacturing in the U.S. Department of Commerce from 2010 to 2012, he visited the White House during his first week on the job and came upon the instrument built and presented to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938.
With carved eagles for legs, Perez describes the Steinway Art Case Grand Piano, the 300,000 piano produced by Steinway & Sons, as “a national treasure.
“There I am, and there is a very smart-looking Marine playing the piano,” said Perez, himself a retired U.S. Navy officer. “I asked him how the piano was. He said it’s in good shape.”
Caring for treasures and keeping things in good shape are priorities for the West Michigan businessman, a former Board Chairperson of the Grand Rapids Symphony, who was named interim President and CEO in January.
Now, the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Board of Directors has appointed Perez to the permanent position. By coincidence, the official appointment on March 16 fell on Perez’ birthday.
“I’m in the fourth quarter of my life. I didn’t seek the job, the job sought me. But this is a real honor,” said Perez, who is chairman of Carter Products, a producer of accessory equipment for the industrial woodworking machinery industry.
Perez’ enthusiasm for music and his commitment to the Grand Rapids Symphony, coupled with a lengthy career in manufacturing, plus forays into real estate development and medical supplies, were factors in the appointment.
“Peter is extremely passionate about every aspect of the Grand Rapids Symphony,” said Mary Tuuk, Vice Chairperson of the GRS Board of Directors and co-chair of the Presidential Search Committee as well as Vice President and Chief Compliance Officer for Meijer, Inc.
In January, Perez was asked to take the helm of the orchestra following the departure of Peter Kjome, who left on Feb. 1 to become President and CEO of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
A Presidential Search Committee had begun to organize a national search for the orchestra’s next administrative leader, but the committee of Board members, administrate staff, musicians and members of the community soon determined the best person for the job already was on the job.
“We were looking for someone who would connect with our community and donors, with our musicians and staff, and who would provide leadership for the organization,” said Charles Frayer, Chairperson Elect of the Board of Directors and co-chair of the Presidential Search Committee. “But having a seasoned businessman also was very important to us.”
Formerly president of another world-famous musical instrument manufacturer, C.G. Conn, in his hometown of Elkhart, Indiana, Perez and his wife, Carroll, came to Grand Rapids in 1990 when they became owners of Carter Products.
“To get someone with his knowledge and experience in the industry, that’s just phenomenal for us,” said Frayer, former Managing Partner with Crowe Horwath LLP. “His connectivity with our donors and the community would be very, very hard to duplicate. If we brought someone else in from an international search, we wouldn’t get that at all.”
In West Michigan, Perez served on Grand Rapids Symphony’s Board of Directors. For four years, he co-chaired the Legacy of Excellence Campaign that in April 2016 reached its $40 million goal in gifts, pledges and future estate plans to grow the orchestra’s endowment fund.
“Peter can tell our story well and with passion,” said Kate Pew Wolters, who succeeded Perez as Board Chairperson in 2015. “As a fundraiser, Peter is the best, and he rarely takes ‘no’ for an answer.”
Perez served as Board Chairperson during the first two years of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s three-and-a-half-year Music Director Search, which ended with the appointment of Marcelo Lehninger in June 2016.
A graduate of Phillips Academy Andover and Yale University, who later earned his MBA from Indiana University, Perez has lived and worked in places as diverse as San Francisco, Chicago and New York City.
“I feel fortunate,” he said. “My career has had many ups and downs, but I’ve had incredible experiences along the way.”
Perez studied piano and viola as a child.
“We had a piano in the house. It was a sign of upward mobility,” he said.
Once, during his high school days, he got to conduct a summer symphony orchestra that he played with.
“I don’t remember the piece I conducted. I don’t remember how it went,” he said with a laugh. “I just remember I did it.”
Perez said he’s happy to be behind the scenes, supporting the professionals who play with the Grand Rapids Symphony.
“I’m in awe of our musicians and what they produce. Anything I can do to support that mission is a real honor,” he said. “The Grand Rapids Symphony has accomplished so much, and the people of West Michigan can take pride in having one of the finest orchestras in the country here in their hometown.”