by Page Leggett
Like his predecessors, Bart Landess, who began his role as Executive Director of the Catawba Lands Conservancy and the Carolina Thread Trail March 1, is straight out of central casting.
He has the essentials: business acumen, people skills and a love for the land. Not only that, he worked at Foundation For The Carolinas when the Thread Trail was in its infancy and got to know the Conservancy’s then-executive director Dave Cable as they collaborated on financing the vision.
“He came to the table with a background on the Thread Trail’s concept and origin that few others could duplicate,” said Alex Rankin, chair of the Carolina Thread Trail Governing Board and a member of the executive search committee.
Here’s how Kelly Katterhagen, Conservancy and Thread Trail board member and a search committee member, put it: “You look at Bart’s work experience, and it’s almost as if he was training for this job his whole career.”
Outgoing executive director Tom Okel has been a beloved and effective leader. The committee understood the daunting task ahead of them as they set out to find Tom’s successor. They decided to cast a nationwide net, said Jonathan Mangels, chair of the Conservancy’s Board of Directors. “We defined what our successful candidate looked like. We didn’t limit it by saying we were only looking in the business world or only in the nonprofit world. We looked all over the country.”
And they found the right candidate right here in Charlotte. “One of the benefits of hiring Bart is that he’s local,” Jonathan said. He already has area contacts, and he knows and believes in the missions of the organizations he’s now leading.
“The process was very extensive,” said Alex. “One of the finalists was in California. Coleman Lew [the search firm the Conservancy engaged] started with over 100 prospects.”
Alex has kudos for Coleman Lew and cites the firm’s “thoroughness and stamina in staying with us in a fast-moving process that required a lot of meetings – including weekends – in a compressed time period.”
Bart feels ready for the job. “I’ve practiced law, including real estate law; I’ve helped nonprofits raise money; and I’ve helped them manage assets they already own,” he said. “Also, I enjoy helping people grow into their full potential. Staff development is important to me.”
The thread that runs through Bart’s diverse resume is fundraising – something that immediately attracted the attention of the search committee. In fact, one of the non-negotiables the committee decided on was a proven fundraising ability. The ideal candidate had to have that. Jonathan said: “There’s a lot of land we can conserve, but we need money to do it.” Since 2010, Bart has been vice president of major and planned gifts at the YMCA of Greater Charlotte.
Before joining the Y, he served for a decade as senior vice president of development and planned giving at Foundation For The Carolinas. Under his leadership, annual donations rose from $39 million in 2000 to a high of $260 million in 2007. Finance, accounting and legal matters related to the endowment and asset management were also under his purview.
Bart’s fundraising prowess, his legal background, his familiarity with the Thread Trail – all were impressive to the committee. But it was much more than Bart’s resume that wowed them. “What sealed the deal was his enthusiasm,” said Alex. “Even in the first interview, he was asking challenging questions. In the follow-up interview … he was totally engaged and was burning to jump in and move the Conservancy and the Thread Trail forward. That energy was obvious and contagious.”
Like Tom, Bart is a Davidson College alum who maintains close ties to his alma mater. In fact, he worked there from 1990 to 1999 – first in Major and Planned Gifts during a $162 million capital campaign – and later as General Counsel and as the president’s executive assistant.
After graduating cum laude from Davidson, Bart moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked at the Department of Justice in the Office of Planning and Management Analysis and later in constituent services for U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Georgia). Then, he returned to his native Charlottesville, Virginia – where he grew up running the trails near his home – to attend law school at UVA.
He worked as an attorney at Smith Helms Mulliss & Moore in corporate formation and governance, finance and – most significantly for the Conservancy – land acquisition.
“Clean water, preserving green space, setting aside land for recreation – all these are important to me,” he said in explaining why the job appealed to him. “And getting to know the staff and seeing how talented they are made this feel like the right opportunity at the right time.”
Bart and his wife, Fran, have four grown children – three sons and a daughter. The Landess kids grew up exploring the outdoors. As a family, they skied, hiked, camped and even went caving.
Bart is former Chair of the North Carolina Planned Giving Council. He’s a founding member of the Institute of Philanthropy and Leadership Gift School and of Legal Services of the Southern Piedmont (now Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy) and a former board member of First Presbyterian Church. He’s was part of the American Leadership Forum’s Charlotte Class V.
Bart’s devotion to the community impressed Kelly and the search committee. She said, “He has spent decades using his legal training, easygoing and empowering leadership style and development skills to make our local and surrounding communities better.”