The San Antonio Area Foundation is in the Pearl.
The San Antonio Area Foundation names a new CEO after almost a yearlong search. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Marjie M. French, the longtime vice president for external relations and chief development officer at the University of Texas at San Antonio, has been named the next CEO of the San Antonio Area Foundation, according to a release.

The Rivard Report reported earlier Tuesday that French was the sole finalist for the position.

According to multiple sources inside and outside the foundation, French was selected amid reports there were two other candidates: Kenny Wilson, CEO of the Haven For Hope since 2016 and the former market president for Bank of America in San Antonio; and Tim Morrow, CEO and executive director of the San Antonio Zoo since 2014 and a former executive at SeaWorld San Antonio.

Both Wilson and Morrow said they withdrew from the process well before they could be considered finalists, and that neither was part of a formal process beyond initial conversations.

French met Sunday evening for dinner at the Pearl offices with Area Foundation board Chair Theodore “Theo” Guidry, the senior vice president for risk management at Valero Corp., and with other board members. French, Guidry, and several other board members contacted did not respond to requests for comment.

French has overseen UTSA’s Office of External Relations since 2008, with more than 100 employees and an annual budget of $8 million. She reports to President Taylor Eighmy, who will oversee the launch of a $500 million capital campaign on the university’s 50th anniversary in September 2019.

Marjie M. French

She previously served as vice president for development at the University of Texas at Dallas and, before then, held development positions at UT-Austin and the University of Houston.

The Area Foundation manages $900 million in charitable assets and 528 donor-assisted funds at its offices at the Pearl and has distributed more than $400 million in charitable grants since its inception in 1964. It more than tripled in size in recent years following the 2014 death of John  L. Santikos and the 2017 transfer of his cinema and entertainment business and his personal wealth to the Area Foundation.

The asset transfer, valued at more than $600 million, also included anticipated future contributions from the for-profit Santikos Entertainment, which is intended now to operate for the benefit of the foundation, according to Santikos’ will.

The asset transfer coincided with the announced retirement of former CEO Dennis Noll, a former biotech executive who had held the job since 2011,  at the end of 2017. An internal search committee was formed in May, headed by Darryl Byrd, a board member and the founder and managing director of ULTRAte Strategy and Consulting.

That committee then retained the services of global executive recruiter Russell Reynolds, which maintains offices in Dallas and Houston. Sources said the firm was paid $100,000 for its work. That search ultimately identified two outside finalists, one from Denver and the other from Houston.

Rebecca Brune
Rebecca “Becca” Brune

Many on the Area Foundation staff and in the San Antonio nonprofit community were surprised that Rebecca “Becca” Brune, the foundation’s president and chief operating officer, was not named as a leading finalist. Brune came to the Area Foundation from Methodist Healthcare Ministries two years ago in what was widely viewed as succession planning by the board and Noll.

“She is going to be an outstanding leader in this organization,” Noll said at the time. “She is fantastic at strategic planning, works really collaboratively, and also knows how to nurture relationships in the office. We are very excited she’s going to come and lead our team.”

Brune did not return calls seeking comment.

At that stage of the search in 2018, there were no local candidates under consideration. Then the two outside finalists were eliminated.

“The Denver candidate alienated just about everyone he met with here,” said one source close to the search, “and the Houston candidate turned down the job after being offered significantly less money than she is making in her current position.”

The year ended without a new CEO in place and no active search underway. Publicly, then-board Chair John Hayes and others said a second national search would be launched. That apparently never happened.

Word began to circulate in early 2019 that local candidates were being invited to apply, and by February the names of the three finalists were circulating in the business community, with French identified as the sole finalist earlier this month.

French now will face two challenges.

Internally, she will have to stabilize staff after a number of key departures and improve services that have caused some donors in the community to complain that the foundation’s service culture is not competitive with for-profit competitors like Fidelity Charitable Donor-Advised Funds.

Externally, there is a growing concern in San Antonio’s nonprofit community and among several major philanthropists that the great promise of the Santikos bequest to the area foundation has not yielded the level of promised giving and that the foundation has never really gained control or financial oversight of Santikos Entertainment and the profits its namesake intended to flow into the foundation each year.

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor and publisher of the Rivard Report.