With its management stabilized and its financial affairs in order, the Collins Center turned to the University of Florida to find the person to lead what is considered one of the state's most well-respected think tanks.
The center, named after former Florida Gov. LeRoy Collins, announced this week it has hired Ann Henderson as president and CEO. She has been director of the Graham Center for Public Policy at the University of Florida since 2009. She begins her new job on May 16.
For Henderson, the job at Collins offers a chance to return a favor.
More than 25 years ago, when she was a cultural affairs director at the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, former Gov. Collins urged her to move to Florida to become head of the Florida Humanities Council. She accepted.
"Joining the Collins Center is an opportunity for me to repay his generosity to me,'' Henderson said. "He is just a hero in my book. I want the Collins Center to (be) equal to the governor's legacy and what he did for our state."
She replaces Merrett Stierheim, the retired Miami-Dade County manager who has served as interim director since August, when longtime president, Rod Petrey, was asked to resign amid financial turmoil.
Petrey had been president and CEO of the center since 1992 and was credited with building the organization to 45 employees and an $11 million budget, with offices in Miami, Tallahassee, St. Petersburg, Tampa and Sarasota. Over the past two decades, the center has had a role in influencing policy ranging from urban revitalization to elections reform and health care. More recently, it had provided mediation and pre-foreclosure services in mortgage foreclosure disputes.
Last summer, faced with a cash shortfall that ranged from $600,000 to $3 million, the Collins Center board hired an independent auditor to determine the depth of the center's financial woes and asked Stierheim to replace Petrey to stabilize the center's finances.
Stierheim said he laid off several staff, reduced personnel expenses by 35 percent, and put in place financial goals and measurements that had been absent.
"I had to make some very difficult decisions,'' he said.
The center's reliance on business from Fannie Mae's pre-foreclosure mitigation program subsided to a trickle, and the center was not bringing in enough grant money to sustain its operation, he said.
With Henderson at the helm, said Stierheim, he expects the center to return its focus to public policy issues facing Florida. "That's historically been a core mission of the Collins Center and I believe Ann certainly brings that kind of experience and judgment," he said.
The center has also developed a financial counseling and mediation program that is available if demand for pre-foreclosure services rise, he said.
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The selection committee conducted a national search and interviewed six candidates. It unanimously chose Henderson, Stierheim said.
"I think she's going to be dynamite,'' Stierheim said.
Henderson previously served as president of the Rodel Charitable Foundation and was executive director of the Florida Humanities Council for 13 years. She received her Ph.D. in American Civilization from George Washington University, her master's from the University of New Hampshire, and her B.A. from Vassar College. She is fluent in Spanish.
Henderson said she hopes to help the center ignite statewide discussions on public policy issues that better prepare the state for its future.
"Our state doesn't have a defined policy on much," she said. She believes that Florida's environmental policy is "embraced by all sides" as a priority, "but I can't come up with another issue where we know where we're going as a state.''
Her goal, she said, is to help the Collins Center become the politically neutral policy forum to which Floridians can turn for discussion and answers. Just as the former governor called her in 1985, she wants people to say: "'This is a tough issue, I think we better call Collins.'"
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas