By Eric Woods
Born in Gifford, Michael Frerichs dabbled in numerous livelihoods before he reached the state treasurer’s office. From humble beginnings doing farm-related work in Illinois, he studied German in college, taught English in Taiwan, worked as a paralegal, taught at his former high school and started his own engineering company – all before settling into politics. Currently, he serves as the Illinois state treasurer and the state’s chief investment officer.
Frerichs lives in Champaign County but enjoys Springfield and working in state government where he can be of assistance to a large number of people. “Springfield also loves Lincoln. I like that they have a soft spot for tall, lanky politicians from central Illinois,” he said. Frerichs, who stands 6 feet, 8 inches tall, was a late bloomer who underwent a major growth spurt near the end of high school. “My sophomore year, I was the second shortest kid on the high school basketball team,” he recalls.
A graduate of Yale University, Frerichs went on a mission to establish his career once school was behind him. “After graduating college, I knew I could do just about anything, and then I saw a poster on campus about teaching in China. I thought it would be nice to step outside of Western culture and do something different,” said Frerichs. He was advised to not teach in China, but instead, to teach in Taiwan. While there, he learned to speak Chinese, and his tall frame was the topic of many conversations, which included questions of whether or not he played basketball. “They were very inviting people. I saw the world through a different set of eyes.”
Frerichs made his way into politics when he was elected to serve as an Illinois state senator in 2006, where he spent eight years representing East Central Illinois. He was elected state treasurer in 2014. His office invests state dollars and helps individuals invest their own money. He is also a consumer advocate through the unclaimed property department. “What gets me excited is giving people the tools to help themselves save and give their kids a brighter future,” he said. “It is a team effort in this office. When you surround yourself with people you like, it is easier to come to work. We have a great team.”
Working with the unclaimed property division has been a good thing, as Frerichs discovered a number of problems when he came into the position. “Some companies had not paid out their benefits, and the money belongs to the beneficiary. Our job with the unclaimed property division is to make sure they get what is due to them from the insurance companies and make them keep their promises that they made,” said Frerichs. “When we talk about consumer advocacy, this is an example. When there is unethical behavior, we want to hold them accountable.”
In spite of his multi-industry experience, Frerichs plans to remain in public service for Illinois in the foreseeable future. “Some may feel it is political to run us down, but this is a great state with a lot going for it. We are committed to working through the challenges and do not intend to stop fighting,” he said. “I did career nights at the University of Illinois in Champaign, and the only student who came to my booth was a tall athlete who wanted to know where I got my clothes.”
Even if sometimes it appears others are not all that interested in state government, Frerichs loves what he is doing. “It is better to do something you like every day than to have just a title. People are more likely to want to work with you if you love your job,” he said. “When you find the job you love, you never work a day in your life. People are often told to do what they ought to do, not what they want to do. I have done some interesting, challenging things that I have loved doing.”
Over the next couple years, Frerichs and his office will focus on becoming stronger consumer advocates and helping people focus on their long term future. “People need to make long term plans. We have some great programs that will help people save for their own future,” he said, noting that he wants to see more families able to save for college. “If people know they have a college savings account, they are seven times more likely to go. And if more students work hard in high school, then going on to get degrees will make Illinois more competitive.”