January 13, 2016–The dust was still settling today on the shocking announcement that U.S. Equestrian Federation CEO Chris Welton had left the organization after only 18 months on the job.
Chris, a marketing expert, came to the table with impressive corporate credentials and big plans, though he had little contact with the complicated culture of USEF and the world of horse showing.
Yet he was optimistic as he undertook his new role. During his address to the USEF annual meeting last year at this time, he set out big goals. They included expanding the membership by more than 10,000 to 92,500, increasing sponsorship and generating more revenue.
But those things didn’t turn out as hoped, and the USEF board felt it was time for a change.
Explaining what she called a separation that was mutually agreed upon, USEF President Chrystine Tauber said, “It was pretty clear he was not really a good fit for us.”
Membership numbers “were flat,” she commented, adding “certainly we had some expectations in terms of sponsorship, and things like that and we need to get back on track.”
There will be a strategic planning session Friday in terms of “identifying our initiatives and where we need to go and honing in on that a little bit more,” she said.
According to Chrystine, the timing of Chris’ departure, which seemed odd to some as the meeting got under way this morning, enabled the federation to move ahead as Bill Moroney took over the CEO spot on an interim basis.
Bill, who is in his last year as U.S. Hunter Jumper Association president, had in the past been mentioned as a possible USEF candidate for president. But he was eager to take on the CEO challenge and is interested in keeping the job on a permanent basis, though it’s early days and at the moment he’s just thinking about what needs to be done now.
“We’re going to engage, we’re going to communicate and we as a team are going to do our best job possible to meet the needs of our members and our sports,” Bill told me.
“I’m not far enough into it to set any benchmarks yet. I wouldn’t have taken it if I didn’t believe it was important that we have a strong NGB (National Governing Body) and strong relationships with our affiliates, because it makes us all stronger.”
I asked a variety of folks at the meeting what they thought about the situation and the timing.
Longtime board member Howard Simpson assessed it this way: “When it’s understood mutually that things are not working out well, and you come to a mutual resolution, it’s better to get it done–as disruptive as that is–so both parties can move forward positively after that.”
It sounds as if things were dysfunctional to some extent in the USEF headquarters at the Kentucky Horse Park.
“People would have very high expectations that problems would be solved and things would be better; on both sides there were failures or miscommunications,” said Howard.
“We’re moving forward in marketing, but we never really quite get there.” He would like to see USEF become more of “a membership service organization, rather than just a regulation organization. Marketing should be bent toward membership service and fulfillment.”
Bill seems to have a lot of support; as a founder of the USHJA and its leader throughout that organization’s existence, he has experience that can be put to good use at USEF.
“Personally, I am very happy with who they chose to bring into the interim position, because Bill and I shared a lot of concerns about the management of the federation,” said Malcolm Hook, chairman of the USEF safety committee.
He sees Bill as “working to make sure there is adequate staff to undertake the tasks they are assigned and that they are not always trying to play catch-up with the various bosses they feel they have a responsibility to.”
So what really happened to trigger Chris’s precipitous departure? Chris, who said he is going back to his hometown of Atlanta to pursue some opportunities, was an occasional recreational rider, but that in no way prepares someone for the internal workings and politics of the U.S. sport’s governing body. Because of a non-disclosure clause in his severance, Chris couldn’t speak about what had transpired, though he did say, “I enjoyed it. It was a good ride, I thought we made a good bit of progress, but it was time for other things.”
I talked to a number of people off the record as I passed them in the halls at the Hyatt Regency and they had a variety of thoughts about how this went down.
Several felt that Chris, with his corporate background, didn’t understand the politics of working with volunteers as well as staff, which is a big part of how a non-profit such as the USEF operates. The USEF CEO doesn’t have the same leeway as he might heading a major American corporation, and approval of initiatives from committee members is key.
There have been a number of departures from USEF since Chris took over, and while the people I talked to didn’t blame him for that, such shuffling can be disruptive.
But this convention marks a new start.
Mary Babick, a vice president of USHJA, said, “Bill’s chance to work as CEO of the federation is an excellent opportunity for him and the federation, but most importantly, also an excellent opportunity for USHJA.
“Because in the federation’s current state, we were worried about having to take on more responsibility and now we do not need to do that.”
“The federation has continued to get more and more bloated with its bureaucracy. It’s easy to get lost sometimes and I think they were a little lost. Not enough focus.”
“USHJA being younger, we’re nimble, and we were running into a lot of roadblocks of things for bureaucratic mindspeak they do over there sometimes. I think Bill will cut right through that. He is a great thinker and a relentless worker,” she continued.
Before the change in the CEO’s office, she said, “We’d been asked by our members to take over competition licensing, a huge responsibility, and IT (information technology). Those aren’t really our purview. I’m not telling you we didn’t write contingency plans, but fortunately, we’re not going to have to use them now.”