Columbus Zoo and Aquarium officially begins search for new leader after resignations

Jun 10, 2021 | The Columbus Dispatch

The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium's search for a new president and CEO has officially kicked off this week.

A search firm representative was in Columbus on Wednesday and Thursday, meeting with zoo employees, leaders and donors and community members as he prepares a job description. He hopes to start recruiting candidates in about a week, with interviews ideally beginning by late July.

"Hopefully, by your September or October board meeting we'll be able to announce — my lips to God's ears — a new president," said James Abruzzo, who heads nonprofit recruiting for global search firm DHR International.

The zoo's board of directors recently hired the Chicago-based firm to lead the search process, after considering four groups, zoo board Chairman Keith Shumate said.

The expected cost of the search wasn't immediately available Wednesday night.

Abruzzo gave a presentation to the board on Wednesday about his plans. He will be meeting frequently with the board's search committee —a group of five board members — as the process unfolds, he said. 

"This is a trying time for all of you, I understand that. This is a somewhat unusual search that we're doing," Abruzzo said Wednesday evening.

The search follows the resignation of former zoo President and CEO Tom Stalf in March.

Stalf and former Chief Financial Officer Greg Bell stepped down following a Dispatch investigation into their personal use of zoo assets, including homes and tickets to entertainment events. 

Jerry Borin, who had been the zoo's top executive from 1992 to 2008, came out of retirement this spring to lead it on an interim basis after Stalf resigned.

On Wednesday, board members reiterated their desires for a diverse pool of candidates with integrity and experience, even if it isn't necessarily as a zoo leader.

"This person is going to need to be a tremendous leader, connector, communicator ... a good, compassionate, real person who can unify some areas of the zoo," said board member Gary J. Marcinick.

The market for a new president and CEO will be competitive, with the zoos in St. Louis and Detroit also currently searching for new leaders, but Abruzzo said he expects good results.

"Think big, think great ... think what you deserve and that's what you'll get," Abruzzo said. "That's what we're going to go after."

DHR International has led several searches for zoo and aquarium leaders over the years, including the zoos in Akron, St. Louis and Memphis, the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago and even the head of the nonprofit Association of Zoos and Aquariums in 1991, Abruzzo said.

After selecting a new president and CEO, the zoo will then search for a permanent replacement for Bell, Shumate said Wednesday. Former Finance Director Jennifer Bonifas is currently the zoo's interim chief financial officer.

Columbus Zoo investigations continue

A number of reviews and investigations stemming from Stalf and Bell's misconduct continue as the zoo board begins its search for its next leader. The Charitable Law Section of the attorney general's office is investigating the zoo, and the Ohio Auditor of State is conducting an audit into the nonprofit for the first time. The director of the Ohio Ethics Commission has also said that agency, which oversees public officials and entities, is considering an investigation. 

A forensic audit by accounting firm Plante Moran continues, as well as an internal review by Porter Wright Morris & Arthur LLP, which the zoo hired to investigate the initial allegations surrounding Stalf and Bell.

Shumate said Wednesday he expects both probes to be finished within 30 to 60 days.