After 18 months on the job, Kansas City business leader Tom McDonnell will step down as president and chief executive officer of the $2 billion Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.
The announcement by the foundation Wednesday that McDonnell, 68, will give up the top position on June 30 and leave the foundation at the end of the year surprised much of the civic community.
McDonnell, former chairman of the Kauffman board, took the post after a yearlong effort by fellow trustees to reassess the foundation’s reason for existence and return some attention to its Kansas City roots. As board chairman, he had led the December 2011 ouster of the foundation’s previous CEO, Carl Schramm.
Kauffman’s current board chair, Janice Kreamer, said McDonnell, former head of DST and one of the area’s most active civic leaders, had provided “perfect” leadership to the foundation since he became CEO on Jan. 1, 2013.
She declined to say whether trustees knew McDonnell would stay only two years.
In announcing the change, the foundation said McDonnell’s “personal plans do not allow for a long-term commitment in his current role” consistent with the foundation’s five-year strategic plan.
McDonnell said in an emailed response to questions that he “did not plan on that kind of extended commitment.” The foundation, he said, needs a CEO who can commit to the next five to seven years.
Kreamer said in an interview that McDonnell reconnected the foundation with the Kansas City community, built a strong management team and board, and led development of the five-year strategic plan that its trustees unanimously adopted in April.
Wendy Guillies, a foundation vice president in charge of communication, will become acting president and CEO on July 1. Guillies has led the foundation’s communication efforts since 2000.
Kreamer said the foundation’s trustees will work with Guillies to determine their approach and timing for naming the next CEO.
“Wendy certainly has the opportunity to apply,” Kreamer said. “But we need to first sit down with the management team and Tom. We’re not in a rush to do this.”
Kreamer said the foundation’s trustees, with McDonnell’s backing, recommended Guillies for the acting CEO role.
Guillies praised McDonnell’s work at the foundation and said she was deeply honored by the trust placed in her.
“I’ve dedicated much of my career to this foundation,” she said Wednesday afternoon. “I love it, and I’m happy to step in and help however I can.”
McDonnell, the foundation’s longest-tenured trustee, was its former chairman and led the movement to replace Schramm in December 2011. Schramm had raised the foundation’s national profile in entrepreneurial research, but many Kansas City area leaders felt he had turned the foundation’s back on Kansas City.
Trustees then spent nearly a year reassessing the foundation’s mission before saying in December 2012 that McDonnell would become the CEO.
McDonnell wrote in his email that he has “full faith in this management team and our talented associates” to continue the foundation’s work, as conceived by founder Ewing Kauffman.
The foundation is nationally recognized as a research leader and funder of entrepreneurship and education projects aimed at improving economic independence. Examples include backing the nationwide FastTrac and 1 Million Cups programs for entrepreneurial education and financing an experimental charter school in Kansas City.
Civic leaders focused Wednesday on McDonnell’s contributions.
“Tom McDonnell is a remarkable entrepreneur, businessman, philanthropist and civic leader who has made an extraordinary contribution to the Kansas City of today and the Kansas City of the future,” said Jim Heeter, president and CEO of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce.
The chamber board had selected McDonnell as Kansas Citian of the Year in 2003.
McDonnell said he intends to continue his civic and charitable involvement in Kansas City but also spend time in London and the English countryside, going to Notre Dame football games and enjoying Colorado in August and “during powder season.”
McDonnell’s decision to leave, Kreamer said, “is showing his benevolence to the management team in that he’s not committed to staying five years to build this out.” She said he will serve as an adviser until the end of the year and leave the foundation “in good shape for the future.”
Kreamer said the strategic plan is sticking with the foundation’s commitment to increase economic independence through education and entrepreneurship. She said there will be no abrupt changes in its research or funding practices.
The top management team at Kauffman has evolved somewhat during McDonnell’s tenure.
Former chief financial officer Al Strain has left, and Tom Ruhe, the foundation’s vice president of entrepreneurship, is leaving in June. Foundation spokeswoman Barbara Pruitt said those changes were unconnected to the CEO transition, and Strain and Ruhe both had other opportunities.
The rest of the foundation’s senior leadership team includes Gloria Jackson-Leathers, who holds the position of director of Kansas City civic engagement; Aaron North, vice president of education, who succeeded Munro Richardson, who left in 2012 to co-found an Internet company; chief investment officer Mary McLean, whose appointment was announced by McDonnell in December 2012; finance director Kristin Bechard; Dane Stangler, vice president of research and policy; Jennifer Anzalone, director of human resources; and general counsel John Tyler.
Guillies has had a career in public relations and is a graduate of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce’s Centurions leadership program.
After graduating from the University of Nebraska with a journalism degree, she worked in California for a Blue Cross organization and two hospitals. Later she joined Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas City and then spent three years in marketing communications at GeoAccess, an Overland Park entrepreneurial firm.
Guillies managed the foundation’s public relations during the tumultuous transition from Schramm to McDonnell. The time included resignations by two board members who thought that Schramm was treated unfairly and that McDonnell’s focus on Kansas City might not be the best thing for the foundation, which had buffed up its national reputation under Schramm’s direction.
During McDonnell’s tenure, the foundation’s board was expanded to include trustees with deeper ties to Kansas City. Barbara Mowry, board chair of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, and John Sherman, chairman and CEO of Kansas City-based Inergy LP and Inergy Midstream LP, were added to the Kauffman board, increasing its size to 10 trustees.
Kreamer said the foundation will publicly share more details about its new strategic plan at a later time.