Tennessee Aquarium picks another successful businessman as new leader

Keith Sanford to take over as president and CEO of downtown Chattanooga's leading tourist draw

The Tennessee Aquarium is seen in this photo from early August.
photo Keith Sanford has been chosen as the president and CEO of the Tennessee Aquarium in downtown Chattanooga.
photo Keith Sanford has been chosen as the president and CEO of the Tennessee Aquarium in downtown Chattanooga.

Businessmen have run the Tennessee Aquarium, downtown Chattanooga's leading tourist draw, since it opened in 1992.

The aquarium's founders wanted it run like a business because, in the beginning, doubters in the community feared the pioneering attraction in Chattanooga's then-depressed downtown would flop, leaving taxpayers on the hook to keep it alive.

The trend of business leadership continued Tuesday, when the aquarium's board announced it had chosen Keith Sanford as the institution's fourth president and CEO after a nationwide search that drew more than 100 applicants. He'll replace Charlie Arant, who is retiring after 20 years at the aquarium's helm.

"I'm excited," said Sanford, 57, an executive vice president at First Tennessee Bank. "It's a way for me to give back to the community that's been so good for me."

Sanford has a long history of community involvement and fundraising for nonprofit organizations, including serving as the chairman of the 2015 United Way Campaign. And he's the current director of the Tivoli Foundation, which aims to restore the iconic downtown Tivoli Theatre.

One of Sanford's first goals when he starts Tuesday will be to raise money for the Tennessee Aquarium Freshwater Conservation Institute, a $4.5 million structure under construction on the Baylor School campus that will raise fish, including lake sturgeon and brook trout, for release into the wild.

"The aquarium, other than capital needs, is fairly self-sufficient," Sanford said. "But the conservation institute is going to need community support."

Sanford served for three years on the aquarium's board. And he's visited the aquarium for years with his family.

"Having four children, I've spent some time down there," said Sanford, whose youngest child is 22.

Arant, in a news release, said the board made an excellent choice in hiring Sanford.

"I'm confident that some of the Aquarium's best years are yet to come with Keith's leadership," he said.

Sanford has spent a lot of time in downtown Chattanooga, where he's worked for 36 years at First Tennessee, starting as a management trainee in June 1980 two weeks after he graduated from Washington and Lee University with a degree in business.

For the past five years, Sanford has been Chattanooga's market president for First Tennessee, the region's largest bank with 25 branch locations and more than $2 billion in assets. He'll be replaced at the bank by Jeff Jackson, who has more than 22 years of industry experience and most recently served as a vice president at First Tennessee.

Arant was paid a salary of $264,053 in 2014, according to the nonprofit aquarium's tax filings. Sanford declined to say what he'll be paid, but said it would be comparable to what he earned at the bank.

Sanford expected to retire from First Tennessee, but then his fellow aquarium board members asked him to take over for Arant.

"It's about the only thing that I can see that [could have] lured me away from the bank," Sanford said. "I told them I hope to give it at least 10 [years]."

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or www.facebook.com/MeetsForBusiness or twitter.com/meetforbusiness or 423-757-6651.