Augustana Means Business: Alumnus Finds Calling at the Intersection of Faith and Finance
Written by Senior Director of Alumni Engagement Joel Gackle
Fred Johnson ‘84 is a certified public accountant (CPA), who oversees Church & Institutional Financing at Thrivent Financial in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and serves as senior portfolio manager for the Thrivent Church Loan and Income Fund. After 34 years with Thrivent, he is still passionate about his work and its impact.
Q: How did you discover Augustana?
A: I grew up in St. Cloud, Minnesota, and both my parents were educators. Education was very important to our family. I took my studies seriously, but I also enjoyed music and sports — especially track. I was recruited by a few universities and signed a letter of intent with another school. On a whim, my dad suggested we check out a school in South Dakota. I'll confess, I had never heard of Augustana. He set up a time to meet with the admissions team and the track coach, Jim Egge.
It was a hot summer Friday walking the campus, but I clearly remember feeling very welcomed and impressed with all that Augie had to offer. The many people I met were both genuine and encouraging, and I felt blessed to receive scholarship help. What made Augustana stand out from every other school is that I could participate in athletics, music and campus ministry while getting an education that prepared me for “real life.” The liberal arts education was very important to me. On Monday, I told my dad, “Let’s do this,” and I became a Viking.
Q: Tell me more about your time as a student-athlete at Augustana?
A: I really enjoyed Coach Egge and being part of the track team, but my first love was basketball. I walked-on as a freshman, and played for John Thomas. At 6 feet and 157 pounds, I didn’t have a future in the NCC (North Central Conference). Unfortunately, I tore my hamstring after my sophomore year, ending my ability to compete.
Q: What was that like for you, no longer competing?
A: It was very frustrating, but I was grateful that Coach Egge allowed me to continue with the track team as a peer coach. I like to say there are no coincidences with God. My injury led me to new opportunities, as I was blessed to sing, play drums, travel with two singing ministry outreach teams and sing under Dr. Olaf Malmin in the concert choir. Many lifelong friends came from these experiences. God closed one door and opened up several others.
Q: How did Augustana help you grow?
A: I credit Augustana for growing my relationship with Christ and providing me with a moral compass — one that combined faith and learning. Two buddies, who are still close friends today, invited me to join the South Dakota Fellowship of Christian Athletes (South Dakota FCA) my freshman year — that was a big part of my Augustana experience.
Q: Who were some of the people who shaped your time at Augustana?
A: There are many people for whom I am ever grateful, but three people stand out. John Thomas played a big role. Not only did I play basketball for him, but he hired me as a student worker in the development office. He taught me how to network and helped me to be unafraid of reaching out and having conversations with anybody and everybody. He would say, “You never know where a conversation is going to lead.” I also wasn’t comfortable as a public speaker, and John put me in front of groups of people and encouraged me to share my story with confidence.
English Professor Dr. Carolyn Geyer also had a huge impact, teaching me the importance of being able to write well. There were some tools missing in my toolbox, and one of them was the ability to communicate properly and professionally in writing.
Finally, Rev. Dr. Mark Jerstad encouraged me and challenged me to deepen my faith. During January-Interim my senior year, I joined Pr. Mark, his wife, Dr. Sandy Jerstad, and 60 other clergy on a trip through Israel. I learned so much from him in terms of Biblical truth, integrity and respect for others near and far.
Q: What did your journey look like after graduation?
A: Like other accounting majors, I applied and had interviews with, at the time, the Big 8 firms. I received two offers, but decided to join a regional firm in the Twin Cities. I wanted to work in both auditing and tax to build a broad base.
I spent three years in public accounting, and one of my audit clients was Lutheran Brotherhood. They were internalizing their mutual fund operations in Minneapolis about the same time. Lutheran Brotherhood, now Thrivent Financial, hired me into an accounting manager role as part of the internalization, and I quickly realized I was more drawn to finance. I completed an MBA (Master of Business Administration) in finance and have since managed different areas at Thrivent.
Q: In your leadership roles, how would you define your approach?
A: Following Christ’s example of being a servant leader has always been my inspiration, and it is a continual work in progress for me. I try to be a willing listener and compassionate advocate for people, encouraging a team approach to our work. I am currently blessed with a great team of 20 individuals with very different styles and preferred methods of conducting business. Encouraging an environment of collaboration is where I hope to add value in drawing out each of their strengths in meeting common goals.
Q: When you look back on your career, how have you lived your passions?
A: I have been blessed to work for an organization that has encouraged me to live out my passions for growing the body of Christ, developing people and dabbling with numbers and investing. Every day I get to help churches and pastors impact others for Christ by bringing faith and finance together while also providing investment vehicles that allow people to multiply that impact. Looking back, I can see the building blocks along my path. While maybe unclear at the time, God's hand was definitely leading me with each one of those opportunities — starting with my time at Augustana.
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