- Lynn Burkhead
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During the 2008 National Wild Turkey Federation Convention and Sport Show in Atlanta last month, all looked well — at least on the surface — within the turkey conservation world.
The NWTF organization was celebrating its 35th anniversary, wrapping up another successful convention, and had enjoyed a raucous evening the night before at the annual awards banquet, capped off by a Lorrie Morgan concert.
Not to mention that spring turkey hunting season was fast approaching.
Despite the rosy glow of convention success, all of that was tempered in recent days: Last week, the NWTF reported from its Edgefield, S.C., headquarters that Rob Keck had announced his resignation, effective June 1 and was stepping down after 30 years with the organization, the last 27 spent as CEO.
The news release indicated Keck had decided for "personal and family reasons" to step down and that the National Board of Directors reluctantly accepted the decision.
By week's end, damage control had begun in earnest as both the board and Keck sent out letters to regular and sponsor membership, urging those folks to keep the turkey conservation faith and not give up on the organization's central and ongoing mission.
While both sides maintain the CEO is leaving of his own accord, others have opined in recent days that the departure was linked to two prominent dismissals from the senior leadership team.
Through internal and external sources, along with various media reports, it appears that the board forced out Carl Brown, the organization's COO, and Dick Rosenlieb, the senior vice-president of sales and marketing — for reasons which remain undisclosed.
SkinnyMoose.com reported last week's walking papers for Brown and Rosenlieb were not the first time such an action has been tried.
The "Moose Droppings" blog indicated that this " past fall the board attempted the same thing and at the time Rob Keck threatened to resign if they forced these two out and it failed."
If that is true, then apparently this time, the Board's poker hand was played out, and Keck followed through.
Regardless, the move comes as a shock to most supporters, including many at the Edgefield headquarters, where Keck announced his decision at a staff meeting.
According to an internal NWTF source, the sudden departure left employees stunned, cautious and even a little depressed. At the forefront of the NWTF's mission for three decades and in many ways, he is the organization's figurehead.
During his time at the helm, the grassroots organization grew into a powerful conservation group, with more than 550,000 members in all 50 states, Canada, Mexico — and several countries abroad — in addition to meeting its goal of restoring the wild turkey to suitable habitat across North America.
When the organization was founded in 1973, a news release stated 1.3 million turkeys were estimated to be roaming the U.S., coupled with some 1.5 million turkey hunters.
Today, after years of work by the NWTF, various private partners and governmental natural resource agencies, there are an estimated 7 million wild turkeys and 3 million turkey hunters.
Even so, any time two senior staffers are dismissed by a board of directors and the CEO resigns within days, a number of questions emerge, including the obvious "Why?" and "What's next?"
As to the why question, some have wondered whether anything wrong has occurred. At this point it seems doubtful — and nothing in the rumor mill seems to even hint at that.
Another internal source certainly didn't think so and had not heard anything to support it, but simply believes the board wanted to go in a different direction.
Another former employee also wasn't surprised by last week's moves, saying if an organization wants to change management practices or philosophy, they usually start at the top.
They said the "good old boy" leadership approach that has served the NWTF for the past three decades had run its course and that the board must have wanted to go in a different direction.
Another theory the source voiced wondered if high executive salaries may have been one of the reasons behind Brown and Rosenlieb being dismissed.
While other writers have speculated in print about the salary issue (in Keck's case, $380,810 — according to CharityNavigator.org), the predominant theory is that's not the entire story.
Keck made more than Ducks Unlimited's Don Young (who earns $257,828 according to CharityNavigator.org), but has also been the group's CEO for 27 years, compared to Young's 10-year tenure as DU's executive vice-president in Memphis, Tenn.
In addition to the "Show Me the Money" speculation, ESPNOutdoors.com has heard and read conjecture about whether or not the NWTF is now a ship without a rudder, struggling to find its mission for the next 35 years after helping author one of the most successful wildlife conservation stories of modern times.
That also seems plausible: One of the biggest hurdles facing any successful organization, whether it is a business, a 501(c)(3) non-profit conservation group, a church, or even a sportsman's club, is how to sustain momentum and reinvigorate members once major goals have been achieved.
If you doubt that, remember how difficult it is to win the Super Bowl multiple times in a row.
So the bigger question is, "What's next?"
Clearly much is at stake as Rob Keck's tenure draws to a close.
Regardless of the change at headquarters, the wild turkey remains one of the most sought-after game species in all of North America each year, thanks to its big game bird status, its loud-mouthed gobbling activity, the beauty of spring hunting, and the turkey's wiliness that challenges even the best of hunters.
22hEthan Sherwood Strauss