When Phil Wenger stepped down nearly two years ago as head of Isaac’s Famous Grilled Sandwiches, the restaurant chain he built, he made it clear he wasn’t retiring.
He had just tired of the rat race of the for-profit world and was, as he put it, looking for the next mountain to climb.
“The nature imagery is apt given that he’ll become Lancaster County Conservancy’s chief executive officer Jan. 1.
I’ve always had a love of nature, and being outside is where my soul gets restored and where I find my mental health comes back into balance,” Wenger, 58, a Lancaster city resident, said.
He will succeed Michael Burcin, who announced in April he would step down for health and personal reasons. Burcin took over for longtime leader Ralph Goodno, who died last year of leukemia.
The conservancy was on a short list of organizations Wenger said he’d have considered leading, but he didn’t apply when the position was first posted.
Then about a month ago, he talked to conservancy leaders about the organization’s challenges and opportunities and what type of candidate they were looking for.
A couple of days later, he applied.
“As soon as I lit on this idea of running the conservancy the way Ralph Goodno did, it was like two sides of a magnet coming together in my soul, and I said, ‘This is really what I’d love to do,’ ” he said.
Under Goodno’s leadership, the conservancy’s preserved acreage grew from 1,445 when he arrived in 2002 to more than 5,000 acres around the time of his death in June 2014.
Creative, successful, connected
Several people who know Wenger describe him as creative, a strategic thinker and a successful businessman with plenty of connections. He’s vice chairman of Lancaster General Health and past chairman of The Lancaster Chamber of Commerce & Industry and the Pennsylvania College of Art & Design. He’s also served Planned Parenthood, YWCA Lancaster, United Way, Fulton Opera House and many other groups.
“It’s impressive that the organization was able to reach out and tap someone of that talent,” Sam Bressi, Lancaster County Community Foundation president and CEO, said.
Wenger was foundation chair when Bressi was hired to lead it in 2008.
Wenger cares passionately about Lancaster city and county, Bressi said. And, “he built a business that was predicated on giving back to the community,” Bressi said.
Isaac’s offers health insurance to employees who work at least 25 hours a week and supports many charitable causes.
Carol Simpson, chair of the conservancy’s board, said Wenger’s success as an entrepreneur and his “passion and proven track record for helping organizations grow was a key factor in choosing him.”
Dick Minnich, a member of the search committee and past board chair, said there were many qualified applicants, but Wenger rose to the top.
“He walks into the room and has a presence about him. He always commands attention, not by saying a word,” Minnich said.
John McGrann is the conservancy board’s vice chair, was on the search committee and is Wenger’s next-door neighbor.
It was natural for him to reach out to Wenger, he said, and he’s pleased Wenger is coming aboard.
“I think it allows him to discover one more career that ignites passion and energy,” McGrann said.
Wenger, in an interview Thursday, said he had several conditions for wherever he ended up. The organization would have to have growth potential, and it had to be complex — a challenge.
Check. Check. The conservancy has in-house counsel to handle easements and land acquisition. And “preserving our environment and using nature to hold back the forces that have been unleashed, whether it’s global warming at a global scale or whether it’s storm water runoff at a local scale” is complex work, he said.
The organization would also have to have good governance. “They have a very committed and very community-represented board,” Wenger said. Finally, “I had to have something that’s in alignment with what feeds me. Life for me is about energy,” he said.
Nature does that for him, he said, noting he spent part of his childhood in Ethiopia, the son of missionary parents.
His father was an amateur ornithologist and his mother knew the different types of trees and shrubs around them, he said.
And since he stepped down from Isaac’s, Wenger has been rehabbing an old angler’s cottage along the Susquehanna River on the York County side.
“I’ve got bird feeders all around it,’’ Wenger said. “I have the river that’s in front of me. I see the migrating birds come and go. I sat on the porch the other day and watched a snake eat a little rabbit — very sad, but this is nature. And we have a wonderful area there, a habitat, that I want to try to protect. … It anchors me. I go there and my soul is restored.”
As Wenger’s neighbor, McGrann said, “I got to see how passionate he is and how much energy he gets from being at the river.”
Priority: Preserve more land
Wenger said the conservancy has gone about its mission quietly.
“I believe they hired me to energize this growth path and actually accelerate it,” he said. “And we do that by going out into the community and making connections by bringing in additional partnerships and raising additional money.”
His highest priority, and that of the search committee, is to preserve more land, he said.
“Lancaster County is one of those special and unique places where we still have farmland and we still have wild places, and if we want it not to be like (suburban Philadelphia) we need to act now,” he said. “And I think there’s a high level of interest in this community to do that.”
He’s committed to involving city residents in environmentalism, noting the city’s efforts to combat stormwater runoff that ultimately pollutes the Chesapeake Bay.
“We think it’s really important that if you live in the city, you are also an environmentalist and you’re not given a pass,” he said.
And he’s interested in education, citing the conservancy’s new education center at its Climbers Run Nature Preserve in southern Lancaster County.
“Anybody we have interact with our preserves, we think become missionaries to help preserve more,” he said.
This article was re-printed with permission from LNP, Lancaster, Pa. Nov. 2, 2015.