Column: Pete McTier passes Woodruff Foundation torch to Larry Gellerstedt
By Maria Saporta
Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on April 10, 2015
The most powerful board in metro Atlanta today is arguably the one held by the five trustees of the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation — the largest philanthropy entity in the state.
It is a foundation that shuns the spotlight, but this week, it had a rare occurrence — a change among its trustees.
Charles H. “Pete” McTier, 76, who has been affiliated with the foundation for 44 years — 18 as its president and nine as a trustee — had reached the mandatory retirement age and stepped down at the foundation’s biannual meeting April 7.
He was succeeded by Larry Gellerstedt III, CEO of Cousins Properties Inc., who just turned 59, and is now the youngest trustee of the Woodruff Foundation.
In the early 1990s, the Woodruff Foundation instituted the mandatory retirement age, but grandfathered in the existing trustees. Three of the grandfathered trustees continue to serve on the board: Jimmy Williams, 82, retired CEO of SunTrust Banks, who serves as its chairman; Jimmy Sibley, 95, who is a retired partner of King & Spalding and serves as vice chairman of the foundation; and Wilton Looney, a retired CEO of Genuine Parts who will turn 96 on April 18.
The fifth trustee is E. Jenner Wood III, 63, who is chairman, president and CEO of SunTrust Banks’ Georgia/North Florida division. Interestingly enough, Gellerstedt is the current chair of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, and Wood will chair the Metro Atlanta Chamber in 2016.
These five white men, along with Woodruff Foundation President Russ Hardin, probably have more influence on the future of metro Atlanta and Georgia than any other private citizens in the state.
But it’s a responsibility they take seriously, said McTier, adding that the trustees seek to continue the giving patterns of its benefactor, Coca-Cola magnate Robert W. Woodruff.
“Mr. Woodruff set the example,” McTier said in an interview the day after stepping down as trustee. “It’s our community’s greatest philanthropic legacy. The foundation does exercise humility in what it does. The foundation supports the good work that others do. It is a group process, not the work of a single person.”
But McTier acknowledged the influence that the foundation has.
“It often makes the largest gift. Whatever the Woodruff Foundation does can make or break a project by how much it gives,” he said. “Often the foundation is out ahead of things, providing leadership.”
The Woodruff Foundation has made several jaw-dropping gifts announced in recent months: $38 million to the Woodruff Arts Center, $20 million to Zoo Atlanta, $22.8 million to Georgia State University, and $10 million to Fernbank Museum of Natural History.
McTier also cited how the foundation played a major role in the development of Centennial Olympic Park, covering more than half of its cost; and the acquisition of hundreds of acres of land along the Chattahoochee River.
Gellerstedt has had a long history with Foundation-backed institutions. He helped rescue Fernbank when it was on the verge of bankruptcy. He helped with the merger of Egleston and Scottish Rite hospitals into Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. And he helped lead the governance changes at the Woodruff Arts Center.
“Larry stands at the top of today’s community leadership,” McTier said. “Doing what’s best for the community is in his DNA.”
And Gellerstedt said he was so humbled to be taking McTier’s spot on the board.
“Pete has always been a mentor and a hero,” Gellerstedt said. “There’s a lot of gratitude I feel.”
Hardin also called McTier a mentor.
“Nobody has had more influence on these foundations than Pete,” Hardin said. “Pete may not have a title, but you can be assured I will still have him on speed dial.”
Last year, the foundation gave away a total of $121.5 million to 43 grant recipients. At the end of 2014, it had assets of $3.15 billion.
Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Foundation
A transition of leadership is underway at the CHOA Foundation.
Gene Hayes, president of the foundation and who has been with the children’s hospital (or predecessor hospital) for 25 years, will be retiring at the end of the year.
Ron Frieson, CHOA’s chief public policy officer, will be his successor — expanding his current role and outreach in the community.
“What’s been affirming in my years here, the mission of Children’s has remained the same,” Hayes said. “We are 100 percent devoted to children’s issues — to grow them up healthier tomorrow. The purpose of our foundation is to enhance awareness, enhance engagement and enhance philanthropic support.”
Frieson, who has been with CHOA for nearly seven years, said 2015 is an important year for the institution. The hospital can trace its roots back 100 years to the Scottish Rite Convalescent facility.
Hayes’ and Frieson’s posts will overlap during this special centennial year.
“With this move, we are going to take an opportunity to combine the foundation with the external affairs and strategic area on May 1,” Frieson said. “Gene will continue to be here through the end of the year as we continue to transition.”
Hayes said that what has made the foundation so special has been its leadership: Doug Hertz, Stephanie Blank and Tommy Holder. “We have been blessed with strong community leadership,” he said. “And we have seen amazing growth since that time.”
In 2013, Children’s served more than 360,000 children from all 159 counties in the state. It directly employs 9,200 people.
Both Hayes and Frieson said that one of the key strategic areas for CHOA going forward will be to build its research capabilities. It already is viewed as a leader in the areas of autism and childhood cancer.
Heroes, Saints and Legends
The Foundation of Wesley Woods will honor three stellar Atlanta leaders on April 16 at its Heroes, Saints and Legends event at the St. Regis Atlanta.
Those leaders are Bill Bolling, founder and executive director of the Atlanta Community Food Bank; Shirley Franklin, former mayor of Atlanta who is serving as CEO of Purpose Built Communities; and Dr. Monica Parker, a physician and professor at Emory University, who also is a “Key to a Cure” award winner.
Wesley Woods has been holding the Heroes, Saints and Legends event for 26 years as a way to celebrate the community’s most inspirational leaders. It honors people who have addressed some of the most pressing issues in Atlanta and have helped transform the community.
Proceeds from the event go to benefit Wesley Woods Senior Living and Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease care and research at Emory.