Canepa, John C.

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
West Michigan
John Canepa served in the banking industry as president and CEO of Old Kent Bank in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His community building influence is important in Grand Rapids as a member of the Downtown Development Authority and Grand Action. He led efforts to bring to downtown some of Grand Rapids' major cultural and business organizations, such as the Grand Rapids Symphony and the Grand Rapids Art Museum. The success of downtown revitalization has brought business and visitors to West Michigan and improved opportunities for its residents.

Biographical Highlights

John Canepa was a child during the Great Depression. He was born and raised in an Italian Catholic neighborhood in a small Massachusetts town. He earned degrees from Harvard and New York University and pursued a successful career in the banking industry. A promotion brought him to Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1970, where he was a principal figure in the development of many of the city’s business and cultural institutions.

Historic Roots

John Canepa was born in Newburyport, Massachusetts, on August 26, 1930. Newburyport was a close-knit community, and John grew up surrounded by members of his extended Italian family. His father delivered and sold fruits and vegetables. They were a relatively poor family, especially during the Great Depression. At age thirteen, John worked at his uncle’s soda fountain, earning one dollar and a quarter a week.

In 1953, Canepa earned an A. B. degree from Harvard University. He had a brief career as a baseball player with the Lynn Red Sox, a minor league team from Lynn, Massachusetts. After Harvard, he joined the United States Navy where he served until 1957. Shortly after joining the navy, he married Marie Olney, and the couple eventually had four children. Canepa returned to school, earning a Masters in Business Administration from New York University in 1960.

He began his career at Chase Manhattan Bank in 1957 because a friend in the human resources department there coaxed him to interview. After five years, he moved to Cincinnati, becoming the senior loan officer at Provident Bank. Then in 1970, Canepa was recruited by Old Kent Bank in Grand Rapids. Soon he became president of its lead bank and joined its board of directors. In 1988, he replaced Richard Gillett as Old Kent's chairman and CEO. He remained at Old Kent until 1995 when he became a consulting principal at Crowe Chizek, an accounting firm.


Canepa’s influence is important in improving the city for all of its citizens. As a member of the Downtown Development Authority, he led efforts to bring to downtown some of Grand Rapids’ major cultural and business organizations. He also was a leader for Grand Action, a non-profit organization that identifies and supports downtown building and revitalization projects. The success of downtown revitalization has brought business and visitors to West Michigan and improved opportunities for its residents.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Canepa was an active supporter of the Grand Rapids Art Museum, and he served as president of the GRAM Foundation. He also served on the boards of the Grand Rapids Symphony Society, the Grand Valley State University Foundation, and Aquinas College. Through Old Kent Bank, Canepa played a major role in sponsoring the River Bank Run, the Grand Rapids Hoops, the West Michigan Whitecaps, and building Old Kent Park, a minor league ballpark. He joined Dick DeVos and David Frey in March 1993 to form Grand Action (which evolved from Grand Vision) a DeVos-led effort to jumpstart the Grand Rapids arena and convention center construction. Grand Action ultimately developed the Van Andel Arena and the DeVos Place convention center. It remains active in renovating the Civic Theatre and working to bring the Michigan State University medical school to Grand Rapids, among other projects.

Key Related Ideas

Canepa grew up during the Great Depression, built a career in the banking industry, and became heavily involved in community building in Grand Rapids, both through his position at Old Kent Bank and through the nonprofit group Grand Action.

Important People Related to the Topic

  • Dick DeVos, the son of Amway co-founder, Richard DeVos: Dick DeVos spearheaded Grand Vision and then, with Canepa and David Frey, formed Grand Action. Dick DeVos served as CEO of Amway and ran for governor of Michigan in 2006.
  • David G. Frey: Frey Foundation trustee David Frey, along with John Canepa and Dick DeVos, spearheaded and co-chaired Grand Action.

Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • The Frey Foundation: The Frey Foundation is a family foundation committed to working together to make a difference in the lives of individuals, families, organizations and communities. Its Web site, at, provides information on the foundation history, programs, guidelines, grant areas, and grant application.
  • Grand Action is a non-profit organization that identifies and supports downtown building and revitalization projects, including the Van Andel Arena, DeVos Place convention center, Grand Rapids Civic Theater, Michigan State University Medical School, and others.
  • GRAM Foundation at provides details about the museum’s current programs and exhibits and has a description of the organization’s history.
  • The Grand Rapids Symphony was officially organized in 1930 and is recognized as one of America’s leading regional orchestras. Eight concert series and extensive education and community service programs provide the community with performances designed for young children through adults, featuring a diverse repertoire. The Symphony sponsors the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, Grand Rapids Youth Symphony, and the Classical Orchestra. It also provides the orchestra for Opera Grand Rapids and the Grand Rapids Ballet Company. (

Bibliography and Internet Sources

Maine, Donald. Maine Street: A Tribute to 27 West Michigan Entrepreneurs. Boston MA: Pearson Custom, 2002. ISBN-13: 9780536679918.
Wozniak, Curt. “Bank Notes,” Grand Rapids Magazine. November 2006: p. 43.

Clipping file and oral history in the SOUL of Philanthropy collection in the Grand Rapids History and Special Collections of the Grand Rapids Public Library