Roller Coaster,” Nick Page

January 14, 2020; Washington Business Journal

The National Geographic Society might as well make its transition committee a standing board committee and keep an interim close at hand, because it has just hired its third CEO in two years. Jill Tiefenthaler, the current president of Colorado College, will wade into the breach left by the October resignation of Tracy Wolstencroft after only a year at the helm.

Wolstencroft came from the board and has now returned to the board. He took over for Gary Knell who resigned in 2015 to take leadership at a new joint venture between 21st Century Fox and Nat Geo. This move brought the organization’s asset base up above $1 billion, but it also destabilized the organization’s operational budget, leading quickly to the layoff of 180 employees and what appears to have been a roller coaster of a financial situation.

Wait—we’re not done with the CEO list yet. Between Knell and Wolstencroft, and between Wolstencroft and Tiefenthaler, who will start in August, comes Michael Ulica, executive vice president and chief operating and financial officer, who has taken over the day-to-day responsibilities. All in the family, although the statement released about Tiefenthaler emphasized that a global search was done to find her. (Does it come as a surprise, though, to hear that the search was conducted by the Chicago-based firm Heidrick & Struggles, where Wolstencroft was once president and CEO and where Knell serves on the board?) We hate it when we can see these coincidences coming.

Wolstencroft is a former Goldman Sachs executive, so the wild swings in investment income at play in its recent revenue history should also seem somewhat familiar. As reported by the Washington Business Journal: “The society had brought in more than $1 billion in revenue in fiscal 2015, but that fell to just shy of $80 million in fiscal 2016. In fiscal 2017, its revenue more than doubled to top $188 million, but that figure again fell in fiscal 2018 to $130.7 million.”

Granted, the society has assets of $1.5 billion, but the investment income, which is by far their largest revenue line, still swung from $673 million in 2015 to $25 million in 2016 when it ran a $64 million deficit. This change might have stemmed from the start of the joint venture, but the volatility did not end there. Investments brought in $132 million in 2017, but then declined to $73 million in 2018 when it ran a deficit of $30 million.

Like we said—a roller coaster…and a revolving door.—Ruth McCambridge