James E. Nevels
The Swarthmore Group
Founder and Chairman

Biography

“Call me Jim.” James (“Jim”) E. Nevels is the kind of person you meet for the first time, but he treats you as if you had known one another for decades. Which makes it no surprise that Jim has built his career upon a deep-seated appreciation of relationships. “Value relationships and avoid transactions. That’s the sum and substance of my career,” Jim says. “I can tell you, you’re only as good as your relationships, your friends, allow you to be. There’s no such thing as a self-made person.” Should his grip on humility ever loosen, Jim keeps a photo of the Alabama shack in which he was born within easy view in his Center City office, a straightforward reminder of his roots. That said, Jim had large ambitions from the start. After earning his MBA and JD through Penn’s joint program in 1978, he went on to practice at a Philadelphia law firm. Quickly, it became clear to the partners that his business acumen was a tremendous asset. He was moved from general litigation to transactions. While working on a bond transaction for a Wall Street firm, the client offered Jim a position. He accepted. “My beat became Alabama. Here I am going back to Alabama,” he says, still sounding as if he can’t quite believe the coincidence. Alabama and Jim’s grandfather, specifically, left an indelible impression on Jim at an early age. His grandfather worked as a nickel-a-week funeral insurance-policy salesman for an African American mutual fund. Jim, who lived with his grandparents through the first few years of his life, says he can remember sitting in the back of African American churches on Sunday mornings with his grandfather, collecting nickels from the parishioners after the service. He learned “fundamental things about business” from his grandfather. Working for the Wall Street firm, Jim oversaw a large refinancing for the City of Birmingham. One night, he found himself privy to the city’s bond offering indices. With nothing better to do, he began reading them and realized that Birmingham was sitting on a rather large pension fund. But it didn’t have any exposure to equities, and “it’s just good sense to diversify,” Jim says. The next day, he asked the mayor, who was also the pension fund’s chairman and a friend of his grandfather’s, about it. He thought stocks were too risky. Jim compiled some analytics to the contrary. The mayor reviewed it and asked Jim what he wanted to do. “I want to start an asset management firm and I want the city to be my first client,” he said. That was the beginning of The Swarthmore Group, which, 26 years later, manages $1.7 billion in assets. At 66, entering the twilight of his career—he retired last May from the Hershey board of directors after eight years as its chairman—Jim says much of his thinking now is invested in determining where he can have the greatest impact, both in the office and outside of it. “And then savoring time with those nearest and dearest—preferably on a fly-fishing stream,” he says. One such outlet is Temple University, where, even though he holds no degrees from the school, he’s felt a strong connection to its mission since his introduction to former Fox School of Business Dean M. Moshe Porat, whom he no doubt insisted call him “Jim.” “I’ve always been impressed by the manner in which it projected its brand. I’m a big believer in brands. My career proves it,” Jim says. “With a brand comes definition and purpose, and Temple does it as well as any institution I’ve come across.”

Temple University Awards & Affiliatons

  • Commencement Speaker, The Fox School of Business
  • Former Dean’s Council, Fox School of Business, 2004-2007
  • Musser Award for Excellence in Leadership, 2004

What I wanted to be when I was 20 years old
A lawyer. I admired them; there had been a few in my life, growing up. I saw it as a means to affect positive social change, too.

Best piece of advice anyone ever gave me
“Never forget where you came from. My mother was 16 when I was born. She and my father married two years later, and they remained married for 55 years, until his death 10 years ago.”