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Defining a Future at AARP

The Search for a New Novelli

As baby boomers across the country re-evaluate their retirements in the face of dwindling 401(k)s, the organization that represents 40 million of them in Washington, D.C., is planning for its own future as well.

AARP is near the end of an 11-month search to replace Chief Executive Officer Bill Novelli, whose contract expires at the end of 2009.

AARP senior executives declined to specify when the group will make an announcement, but sources close to the process confirm the internal committee overseeing the search has narrowed the field down to the final candidates. Novelli is not contracted to stay through the end of his term, so he could step down as soon as the new chief executive is announced.

“This is a very high-profile search so they have cast a wide net,” said a source familiar with the process. “AARP will want someone with a combination of a significant amount of gravitas, Washington policy experience and management capability.”

The search for a new leader for perhaps the nation’s most powerful and well-funded advocacy organization has implications both inside the Beltway and beyond.

Although technically a nonprofit, AARP is the equivalent of a Fortune 500 company, employing a staff of 2,419 employees, executing $1.16 billion in operating expenses and overseeing annual revenues of more than $1 billion.

Besides its tens of millions of members — with the potential to reach 50 million — the group also has offices in all 50 states, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, with its headquarters in a 10-story office building in downtown Washington.

The decision last May by AARP’s board of directors to extend Novelli’s contract through 2009 was an acknowledgement of how important the 67-year-old former public relations executive has become in his eight years at the helm, leading the group on a path of growth, increased influence and some controversy.

“When I started at AARP, I wanted to see how we were perceived on Capitol Hill,” Novelli said in an interview last week at his spacious, 10th floor office filled with the photos and awards of a Washington power player.

“The Democrats said we were wishy-washy, and the Republicans said we were Democrats,” Novelli said.

“Today, nobody says we are Democrats and nobody says we are wishy-washy. What we occupy is the pragmatic center,” he said.

During his tenure, membership increased by about 15 percent, while revenues nearly doubled.

“Bill’s steady hand has guided AARP through challenging and exciting times over the years, but the 2009 legislative session could be like nothing we’ve ever seen before,” AARP President Jennie Chin Hansen said in a statement announcing the contract extension.

A ‘Silver Tsunami’

When Novelli was hired by AARP in 2000 as the associate executive director for public affairs, he joined an organization that had just begun to reinvent itself, shortening its title in 1999 from the American Association of Retired Persons and reaching out to the aging baby-boomer population.

He was chosen in June 2001 in a unanimous board vote to replace then-Executive Director Horace B. Deets, a 26-year AARP veteran. He quickly put his own stamp on the position, becoming a high-profile spokesman for the organization and tightening its structure to operate more as a business than an association, according to former employees and board members.

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