Heinz Endowments boss sets new tone
The defining moment of Robert Vagt's first months at The Heinz Endowments came on a Friday evening in late February, during a going-away party for longtime Heinz employee Grant Oliphant. The new boss of Pittsburgh's second-largest philanthropy left the 30th-floor conference room, changed out of coat and tie, shed his shoes and slipped on a get-up of denim overalls and straw hat.
"Graaaant," drawled Mr. Vagt, walking back into the room barefoot and brandishing a pitchfork, "I heard you've been shoveling [dung] around here for a long time. So you are going to need this at The Pittsburgh Foundation [where Mr. Oliphant is now president]." Dragging behind him was a cardboard tower that Mr. Vagt had put together with a U-Haul box, tape and paint: "The people at the Pittsburgh Foundation aren't going to be nearly as nice sometimes as the people here, and you are going to need to get away periodically. So we got you a silo."
Some were shocked by the good-ol'-boy routine, said Heinz spokesman Doug Root, who noticed "jaws dropping." But it also got lots of laughs. And "it made him real," said Mr. Oliphant. In fact, "it was a masterstroke on that count."
The man now in charge of Heinz's $80 million annual grant-making is a former college president, oil and gas executive, ordained minister, prison warden and municipal-finance expert who prefers informality (he asks that you call him "Bobby"), enjoys peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and grilled cheese with mustard, preaches optimism (his favorite Bible verse: "All things are possible to him who believes") and is quick to express humility with acts of self-deprecating humor, especially in staid settings.
Before he was hired as president of Davidson College, a liberal arts school north of Charlotte, N.C., Mr. Vagt (rhymes with "dot") showed up for an interview wearing a red Wildcat football jersey over his suit. His first year, he slid down the soaped terrazzo-tiled hallway of a freshman dorm on his stomach, slip-and-slide style, and he ran the annual town "cake race" wearing the head of the Davidson mascot (the Wildcat).
There were those at the prestigious Presbyterian institution founded in 1837 who did not approve, especially older alumni.
"There was criticism of him at the very beginning," said Kristin Hills Bradberry, former vice president for college relations at Davidson. "He didn't come across as, quote, 'presidential.' " At the same time, "he is probably the most demanding person I have ever worked for, and I mean that in the most positive way."
Added John McCartney, chair of Davidson's board of trustees: "It is certainly fair to say there were some people [who] felt that Bobby was not formal enough," and, "I think a lot of staff were maybe taken aback by the dramatic difference in style from his predecessor." He "can be a shock to the system."
But underneath the humor and the arresting humility, said Mr. McCartney and others, is a steeliness that is not always apparent. "People don't see the more serious side of him right away," said his wife, Ruth Anne. "He is very serious about his professional work; he is thorough; he is one of the most ethical people I have ever known."
In fact, former colleagues at Davidson said Mr. Vagt was not afraid to fire people who did not perform, eliminate unnecessary positions and challenge everyone to justify their arguments. He also led a 2005 campaign to allow non-Christians on the Davidson board for the first time in school history -- causing two longtime trustees to step down in protest.
"He doesn't shy away from a fight," said Clark Ross, dean of the faculty at Davidson. Those who try to argue with him can be "decimated by his command of the details." Said Leslie Marsicano, assistant dean for academic administration: "I never wanted to go into a meeting with him unless I was absolutely sure of my figures. If there was something you were unsure about, that would be his first question. He is absolutely laser-like in identifying the issues."
As Mr. Vagt makes the rounds in Pittsburgh, that same hands-on, probing style is evident. He wants to know about every grant, every decision. He wants to sit on as many staff meetings as he can and meet with as many people who depend on Heinz's support as possible. "Why are we doing this, period, and why are we doing this as compared to this?" Mr. Vagt said, in discussing his inquiries. "And why are we now looking at this bigger issue?"
"This is the benefit of a fresh view."
He has not been shy about expressing disapproval, either. One consultant he met "was someone who either hadn't done his homework, or he didn't respect the Heinz Endowments enough to understand you don't shoot from the hip about serious matters," said Mr. Vagt.
Mr. Root, Heinz's spokesman, said his new boss thought this consultant "was full of hot air."
"He was not happy."
Nobody, said Mr. Oliphant, "should underestimate this man's clarity of thought or personal integrity or strength. He is very smart ... a quick study of people, of budgets. He knows when people are not being candid. He can see through phoniness almost instantly."
Mr. Vagt's approach can be traced back to a childhood in New England that was by turns challenging and affirming.
When he was 4, his parents divorced, and he and his mother went to live with grandparents in Georgetown, Del., where they stayed for three years. His grandfather, a minister, became a major figure and influence in Mr. Vagt's young life, teaching him never to think he was better than the next person and to always stand up for truth. Mr. Vagt can still recall when his grandfather defended an African-American neighbor against unjust accusations and rounded up food for families in need.
"Those kinds of things stuck with me," he said.
But his biological father, a native of the Pittsburgh area who attended Waynesburg College, gradually dropped out of Mr. Vagt's life after a parting from his mother. They reconnected in recent years (he died more than a year ago), which Mr. Vagt did not tell his Mom about.
"There were rights and wrongs, and he was wrong," he said. "No need to make somebody upset just for the sake of it." But, "I did carry a little bit of a chip on my shoulder for a long time," Mr. Vagt said, eventually learning that "you shouldn't judge people" and that "change is possible."
A good student, Mr. Vagt went to Davidson on a scholarship and majored in psychology, sometimes working four extra jobs while in school. He married Ruth Anne in his senior year, went to Duke's Divinity School, worked as a psychologist in a Raleigh, N.C., prison to pay the bills, and discovered that working with prisoners was another form of "service to the people."
At age 24, he became the warden of a minimum-security prison in Greensboro, N.C., where he tried to provide incentives for good behavior and had some success. But one night, he found himself locked in a cellblock with an inmate threatening harm with a homemade knife (sharpened bed frame). "He came at me," Mr. Vagt said.
"He was mean and ... he didn't have a lot of self-control." Mr. Vagt said he parried the knife to the side and chopped it out of the inmates' hand. Another inmate tried to finish the job with a club from behind, but others in the cell block held that attacker back. He's thankful that "there is a code in the prison system," he said. "You don't attack someone from behind."
Mr. Vagt worked at a mental health center in Alabama, and was a deputy corrections commissioner in Massachusetts before a former colleague brought him to New York in the 1970s, where he became assistant budget director for the state and then executive director for an agency asked to save New York City from bankruptcy. He had no background in public finance.
"I'll tell you one of things I learned," he said. "If there is something important that needs to be done, and if you set your mind to it and get some logical way for it to happen and keep after it, in most cases it is going to work. We should have never gotten all the banks to roll over the debt. They did. We should never have gotten the Fed to step in the way it did. We should never have gotten the city of New York's budget balanced, and we did."
"You had to wake up in the morning and say: This is going to work."
He spent 17 years in the oil and gas business, at several companies in New York and Houston, and 10 years at Davdison before he landed at Heinz this year as a surprise outside pick. His predecessor, former Heinz president Max King, expects Mr. Vagt to improve on his nine years there.
"I think a fair criticism of my tenure is that we never got as tightly focused as we probably should have been," he said. Mr. Vagt's attention to detail, to the smallest of grants, will "likely deliver a tighter focus."
When asked about the issues most in need of attention, Mr. Vagt mentioned three: local school reform, proper planning and development, and a third topic that he acknowledged was more sensitive. "If I were politically correct, I wouldn't bring this up; but not since I was a freshman from Connecticut in North Carolina in the fall of 1965 have I been as slapped by the black-white issue as I have been in Pittsburgh," he said. "It slaps you. It's there and visible and obvious, and it seems to be, in one way shape or form, embedded in many of the issues we talk about, whether it's the arena or public education or development .... I guess I am surprised that it is not talked about more." And, "as a newcomer, this is the one piece I was not prepared for."
First Published April 6, 2008 12:00 am