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Business Observer Saturday, Apr. 30, 2022 2 months ago

Foundation CFO sets retirement date — with replacement at the ready

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Good succession planning isn’t just for family businesses. A well-defined plan to have a leader in waiting, at any C-level post, can help eliminate transition headaches.    
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Sarasota native Laura Spencer has worked for three of the region’s most prominent entities over the past 34 years: leading CPA firm Kerkering Barberio; drinkware manufacturer Tervis, where she was CEO for four years; and, most recently, the Community Foundation of Sarasota County, where she’s been CFO for a decade. While accomplished, and dedicated and passionate about her work, Spencer has often said, “I’m not going to be one of those people who works until 70.”

She thought 60, tops. That was before the pandemic. And before May 2021, when Spencer’s mom died, unexpectedly at 83, after a short battle with pneumonia. Two months later Spencer’s stepfather, 96, died, of natural causes. (“I really feel like he died of a broken heart — he missed my mom so much,” Spencer says.)

The retire-at-60 mantra took another dent, too, when Spencer read the book “Die with Zero: Getting All You Can from Your Money and Your Life,” by Bill Perkins. The book sets up guideposts to “maximize net fulfillment over net worth.”

With all those happenings, it makes sense an epiphany hit the 57-year-old Spencer in early 2022: If she can financially afford to retire and live the life she wants to, “why do I have an arbitrary age of 60?”

So Spencer decided to retire from the foundation, setting a date of July 22. In doing so she set in motion an essential component of leadership: finding, hiring and preparing your replacement before you leave. Spencer has that in Erin Jones.

"You need a strong number two. If you have a strong number two it makes your number one so much better." — Laura Spencer, Community Foundation of Sarasota County

The foundation’s vice president of finance and operations, Jones, also a Kerkering Barberio alumna, joined the foundation a few months after Spencer, in 2012. Spencer hired Jones to help guide the department, which then had three employees and managed assets of some $194 million. A decade later the foundation has $520 million in assets, up 168%, and the Spencer-Jones led department has doubled in size, to six employees. Jones, 44, will take over as CFO July 25.

“You need a strong number two,” Spencer says. “If you have a strong number two it makes your number one so much better.”

Jones adds while it was never a 100% given she’d be the next CFO, it was a sometimes spoken, sometimes unspoken plan. “We didn’t have daily conversations about succession planning,” Jones says. “But it evolved.”

Laura Spencer and Erin Jones have worked together at the Community Foundation of Sarasota for a decade. (Photo by Lori Sax)

Community Foundation President and CEO Roxie Jerde agrees there was an evolution to Jones’ rise. While Jerde might have thought Jones would be CFO ‘someday,’ she was a bit caught off guard when Spencer told the CEO in January about her retirement plans. “Laura’s wicked smart, but also humble,” Jerde says. “And has so much common sense.”

Jerde lauds Spencer for not only giving seven months notice, but for mentoring and supporting Jones over a decade. That goes for department continuity, but also shows the 33-employee organization that even in a small operation, there’s significant promotion potential. “I really can’t believe Laura will no longer be by my side,” says Jerde, who was named CEO in March 2011 and hired Spencer a year later. “But I’m really excited for Erin.”

Jones and Spencer are both colleagues and good friends — and both are also preparing for an initially challenging adjustment period. “It’s going to be hard at first,” Jones says, adding with a smile that Spencer “told me she’ll go out to lunch with me as much as I’d like.”

The pair met in 2006, when they were classmates in Leadership Sarasota, a program run by the Sarasota Chamber of Commerce for business and civic leaders to get to know the community better. Jones recalls she was intimidated by Spencer, then CEO of Tervis, and hesitated to approach her on bus for a Leadership field trip. The two soon found common ground, as both had worked at Kerkering Barberio, albeit not at the same time.

In 2012, Spencer, soon after joining the foundation, sought a No. 2. “I’d interviewed a few people,” she says. “I wasn’t feeling great about the candidates and then I saw Erin had applied.”

A decade later, a leadership transition unforeseen in 2012 is now in full swing. Spencer says her retirement plans include traveling and following her passion for outdoor sports, especially tennis, golf and cycling.

Jones, meanwhile, says her big-picture goal is simple to say, hard to execute: with her moving up, now she needs a No. 2. Says Jones: “Hiring my new Erin will be critical.”

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