One evening in late 2015, Keith Sanford went home and told his wife Julia, “The strangest thing happened to me today.
“I’m sure nothing will come of it,” added Sanford, then-president of First Tennessee Bank and a member of the search committee for the new Tennessee Aquarium president and CEO. “But they just asked me to apply for the job.”
“Well,” his spouse replied, “I guess you ought to listen.”
It had never occurred to Sanford, who’d worked at the bank for 36 years and planned to stay there until he retired, to switch careers. But Charlie Arant, a former IBM executive who had headed the freshwater facility for more than 20 years, was retiring, and the headhunters were looking for someone like Sanford.
Like the three others who’d held the post since the Aquarium opened in 1992, Sanford was a high-profile businessman, not an experienced biologist or zookeeper.
But he did know a thing or two about leadership, having been named 2014 Chattanooga Manager of the Year, raising funds for numerous local non-profits for many years, and helping grow First Tennessee into the region’s largest bank with 25 branches and more than $2 billion in assets.
So, Sanford, an Aquarium board member for three years, resigned from the selection committee and threw his hat in the ring.
Celebrating 25 years
On May 1 – exactly one year and two months since Sanford took the helm – the freshwater Tennessee Aquarium celebrated its 25th anniversary as one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions. It is also a major economic driver generating more than $100 million in spending each year in Chattanooga.
A “numbers kind of guy who loves to read spreadsheets,” Sanford, 58, landed his first banking job just weeks after earning a B.S. in commerce from Washington and Lee University in his home state of Virginia. The newly-hired management trainee at First Tennessee Bank moved to Chattanooga, married his college sweetheart Julia about a year later, and started a family while working his way up the corporate ladder.
“For the first couple of years, what they did at the bank was let you work in lots of different departments to see where you fit well,” Sanford recalls. “I guess that was before the days of personality tests. So, you’d be a teller for a while, [in] customer service for a while, even work in collections.” It wasn’t long before he became a branch manager, then a vice president and commercial lender, before managing all of the branches and, later, private banking in the trust department.
Ultimately, Sanford was promoted to president of the company, where he remained for five years until joining the Aquarium.
Creatives need bean counters
Easygoing, with a good sense of humor, Sanford is also a longtime, passionate supporter of the Chattanooga community.
It began with board positions at his kids’ nursery school and his church on Lookout Mountain and led to chairmanships of the Chambliss Center, Junior Achievement, Association for Visual Arts, Fortwood Mental Health Center, and many other organizations.
“One seems to breed another, but a lot of the stuff I’ve done is arts-related,” he explains, referring to his volunteer leadership at, among others, the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera, ArtsBuild, Tivoli Memorial Auditorium and Hunter Museum of American Art. The arts connection began as a nudge from his wife, a ballet dancer, although he says, “I have no artistic talent whatsoever. I can’t sing. I can’t dance. I can’t draw.
“I found that one of the ways I could help in the arts was to be on the financial side, because a lot of the arts people just don’t care a whole lot about balance sheets and income statements,” he adds.
Recently, Sanford scaled back on his volunteer work, especially in the arts, to devote more time to raising money for the Aquarium.
Despite his self-effacing humility about being chosen for the role of Aquarium president – “I still don’t know how I got this job,” he points out – the hardest part of the transition wasn’t learning his way around the books, but learning the names of 200 employees and 700 volunteers and finding his way around the facility’s convoluted quarantine rooms and off-exhibit spaces.
“There are all kinds of back stairwells and hideaways, and I still can get in one and not quite figure out where I am, particularly the stairwells, because some of them don’t go all the way up and some of them don’t go all the way down,” he adds, laughing.
Penguin poop, cockroaches
And, then there are the animals.
Drawing on his rookie experience with different jobs at the bank, Sanford often forces himself out of his comfort zone by shadowing the aquarists in an effort to better understand the critters that live here.
“I’ve fed penguins and cleaned penguin poop out of the tanks,” he explains. “I’ve fed jellyfish. I’ve fed lemurs. I’ve watered plants in the alligator cage. I’ve not gotten in the shark tank yet, but I’ve fed lizards and frogs. I’ve gone on tour groups with our educator in the schools and got to hold giant hissing cockroaches. … I have a whole lot of respect for the husbandry folks who take care of those animals because it’s tough work they do.”
Right now, he says, his favorites are the Ring-tailed and Red-ruffed inhabitants of the Lemur Forest, which opened on the one-year anniversary of his new job. “But really, I like them all. There are some that I would probably fear more than others. The alligators are a little scary, and the sharks and the big turtles. I don’t know if I would want to get in there with them.”
The newness of it all, Sanford admits, is “kind of like drinking out of a fire hose, but it’s fun. I wouldn’t say I was complacent, but I had pretty well settled into a routine at the bank. I didn’t think I wanted to do anything else, so I was kind of just minding my time until retirement.
“Now I have a great new outlook on life. I don’t think I’m going to be one of those people who retires at 65. I think I need to spend at least 10 years here.”
Walking the walk
Each night, Sanford leaves the Tennessee Aquarium, with its massive collection of paddlefish, sea dragons and giant rays, and heads home to a family menagerie of two cats, a snake, a gecko and two dogs – all rescues – including a senior hound-Labrador mix named Elvis. To unwind, he loves to cook and read “real” books and newspapers.
His passion for conservation – he serves as chair of the Lookout Mountain Conservancy, which preserves the area’s trails and other natural resources and gives Howard School ninth-graders hands-on training in environmental science – also starts at home, where he and his wife recycle just about everything.
“We keep a roll of paper towels in case we have a dog accident,” he says. “Other than that, we use cloths, tea towels, wash cloths, no paper plates. And the Aquarium is the same way. We’re going to use something that can either be reused or recycled.”
The facility limits its use of plastics, for example, and has added dispensers for refilling water bottles. “One of the things I did here is give free coffee to all the employees,” he notes. “But there’s one condition: You have to bring your own reusable cup.”
At work, Sanford practices an open-door management style and encourages others to give him advice. “I am not a control freak in that I don’t hover very low,” he points out. “I may guide somebody if I feel they’re going off the beaten path, but I’m not going to tell them what to do every day.”
Since coming on board, Sanford has overseen the debut of the lemur exhibit, the $1 million upgrade of the IMAX theater to laser digital format, and the opening of the new Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute building on the Baylor School campus.
“When I came, TNACI was a mud field and now it’s up and operating, and I’m really proud of that,” he explains. “Our team out there is wonderful and they are making a difference, not only for Chattanooga, but the whole country.”
But the best part of his job, Sanford says, is the daily senior team “huddle” in the main River Journey lobby, followed by a solo walk through the galleries, watching staff members feed the animals before the facility opens its doors to the public.
With the Aquarium’s 25th anniversary fast approaching, Sanford hopes the beloved aquatic center will continue to boost the Chattanooga economy and become a global model for clean water research through TNACI. He and his staff are poised to launch a new five-year exhibit plan and visitor experience.
“You’ve got to change it up every couple of years and get something new to keep your attendance going,” he says. “So, we’ll have to raise some money and get some cool new things.”