The last time the top job at the Heinz Endowments was up for grabs in 2007, most speculation in Pittsburgh's philanthropic sector centered on longtime staffer Grant Oliphant becoming its next president.
But despite Mr. Oliphant's close association with the endowments' board chairwoman, Teresa Heinz Kerry, and her three sons, the organization surprised many by hiring an unknown outsider, and Mr. Oliphant left in 2008 to run the storied Pittsburgh Foundation.
"Quite frankly, he was absolutely able [six years ago] but now he's more mature," Mrs. Kerry said Monday after the endowments announced that Mr. Oliphant, 53, would return as president of the $1.5 billion philanthropy. He is expected to start his new job by June.
He succeeds Robert "Bobby" Vagt, who left in January following a tumultuous management shake-up and controversy about the endowments' commitment to environmental issues.
"We're welcoming back someone who's been there and someone who knows what kind of variety he's buying into," Mrs. Kerry said in a phone interview from Boston.
About 25 candidates were considered during a recent search process conducted by the firm that assisted in recruiting the newly tapped chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh, and which last year helped find the current president of Carnegie Mellon University.
"But we thought, at the end, it was important to have someone who reflected what the family generally focuses on and what Pittsburgh has focused on," said Mrs. Kerry.
Mr. Oliphant's experience running the Pittsburgh Foundation since 2008 and his "energy and idealism ... are important for us," Mrs. Kerry said.
"Other people in the mix had very good ideology but we felt, in the end, that Grant was the best fit."
Prior to becoming president and chief executive of the Pittsburgh Foundation, Mr. Oliphant worked at the endowments in various management positions and left as vice president for programs and planning.
His ties with the Heinz family date to 1988, when he joined the staff of the late U.S. Sen. John Heinz, Mrs. Kerry's first husband. He was serving as press secretary when the senator died in 1991 in a plane crash over suburban Philadelphia.
Mrs. Kerry hired him in 1993 to work for the family's various philanthropic arms, and other than a short stint at a Pittsburgh advertising firm, Mr. Oliphant stayed with the Heinz organization until he joined the Pittsburgh Foundation after being passed over for the job that went to Mr. Vagt.
"I was deeply disappointed at the time. I very much wanted the job," Mr. Oliphant said Monday.
"But life really does have a way of working out. It was a great opportunity for me to go and learn a whole host of things, new practices and new ideas. I was very hurt, but I understood. They never pushed me out. In retrospect, they were right."
When Mrs. Kerry called him about a week ago to offer him the job at the endowments, "It was a huge surprise," Mr. Oliphant said.
Though he had conversed with the board chairwoman in the months since Mr. Vagt disclosed he was leaving, "we did not talk about the search," Mr. Oliphant said.
In his new job, Mr. Oliphant will lead a larger organization that has international recognition but still maintains a strong local connection, he said.
"That's clearly part of the appeal for me. They are locally focused but globally connected. It's part of the thrill of being associated with the Heinz family: to have that extraordinary stage and they use it strategically."
Though its origins go back to the fortunes of the founders of the H.J. Heinz Co. global food empire, the endowments is no longer formally connected to the Pittsburgh-based company.
It was created in 2007 by a merger of the Howard Heinz Endowment and the Vira I. Heinz Endowment. Its grant-making -- which totaled $77 million in 2013 -- focuses on arts and culture; children and families; education; economic and community development, and the environment. About 32 people work for the endowments based in EQT Plaza, Downtown.
At the Pittsburgh Foundation, which has assets of just over $1 billion and last year awarded $40.5 million in grants, Mr. Oliphant helped oversee the creation of the Pittsburgh Promise scholarship fund and the launch of the annual Day of Giving online appeal for regional nonprofits.
Among the accomplishments he said he is most proud of during his tenure is growing the foundation's asset base by 33 percent "during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression."
He credited the foundation's staff for being "a really good, crackerjack team" that raised its profile to "a hotbed of innovation and one that community foundations now look to as a model."
The Pittsburgh Foundation said its board will form a search committee to be headed by its chair, Edie Shapira, and a search firm will be named to help find Mr. Oliphant's successor.
The committee will consider local and national candidates and hopes to name someone by this fall.
Mr. Oliphant "richly deserves this chance to lead the Heinz Endowments," Dr. Shapira said in a prepared statement. "They have chosen well, and so has he. We will dearly miss him, but we look forward to a great partnership with him in his exciting new role."
A native of Australia, Mr. Oliphant grew up in Denver and Washington, D.C. He holds a bachelor's degree from Swarthmore College and a master's in organizational development from Pepperdine University.
He was the founding editor of a monthly magazine, American Politics, before joining Heinz's staff.
He will take over an organization that was undergoing unusual turmoil when Mr. Vagt announced his resignation in October.
Last summer, the endowments came under fire for its involvement in creating the Center for Sustainable Shale Development, a nonprofit that supports best practices in the shale gas drilling industry. Critics cited Mr. Vagt's ties with the oil and gas industry -- including his stock holdings in a Texas pipeline company, Kinder Morgan -- as being in direct conflict with the endowments' support of the environment.
After two staff members -- including the endowments' top environmental officer -- were unexpectedly ousted in August, speculation swirled that board member Andre Heinz, one of Mrs. Kerry's sons, engineered the staffers' dismissals.
On Monday, Mrs. Kerry said the endowments will continue to "hone in on energy" as one of its priorities and will try to avoid "misunderstandings" like those that she believes led to formation of Sustainable Shale.
Last October, Mrs. Kerry attempted to distance her family from the center, telling the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that while she wanted to "collaborate" with energy companies including Chevron, EQT, Consol and Shell about responsible ways to tap the resources of the Marcellus Shale, the endowments' board never authorized creation of the center, whose partners include those corporations.
The fact that she suffered a seizure last July and spent several weeks in a rehabilitation center only heightened the controversy surrounding the endowments' role in Sustainable Shale, she said Monday.
"If I hadn't gotten sick, you wouldn't have felt the instability. Unfortunately I was out of it, not conscious for a while, and my son had to be thrown in as a spokesman. It became something that was not intended."
After departing the endowments, Mr. Vagt, a former college president, became chairman of the board of Rice Energy, a Canonsburg-based drilling company.
Joyce Gannon: email@example.com or 412-263-1580. First Published April 14, 2014 11:35 AM