New CEO brings business acumen and faith to Catholic Charities Fort Worth
FORT WORTH — At first glance, Michael P. Grace’s resume seems to lack a few key qualifications.
“I’m not a social worker and I don’t have a background in nonprofit work,” admitted the new president/CEO of Catholic Charities Fort Worth before pointedly adding, “but that’s not why I’m here.”
What the Springfield, Missouri native brings to his leadership role at one of the premier Catholic Charities organizations in the U.S. is a wealth of business experience and an entrepreneurial spirit that embraces innovation, optimism, and constant improvement.
“I can’t do what they do,” he said, acknowledging the dozens of case managers and support personnel who are the backbone of the agency. “What I can do is use my background and skill set to provide more resources, so the people here can continue their work at a very effective, high level.”
Understanding the principles of economics, and how society allocates scarce natural and human resources shaped Grace’s view of the world at an early age. Growing up in a lower middle-class, blue-collar home, he watched his father, Matt Grace, struggle to keep the family business afloat.
“My dad came home covered in grease, paint, and everything else because he worked with the guys in the shop,” Grace remembered. “Building rock quarry equipment is what my grandfather did and what my dad did. I grew up in that entrepreneurial environment.”
When his father’s company fell on hard times in 1986, affording college wasn’t an option for the high school graduate, so he joined the army. Trained as a combat medical specialist, Grace never saw combat but his schooling in emergency medicine served the military in other ways. Based in Germany, the medic patched up the wounds of brawling soldiers and treated severe dog bites suffered by handlers in the canine unit.
“It was an eye-opener for me to go into the army and see firsthand some of the racial and social tension that existed,” he explained. “Military families are under tremendous pressure and stress, and I saw the negative side of that.”
Returning stateside, the army veteran enrolled in Missouri State University where he met his wife, Elizabeth. He later earned a degree in economics from the University of Missouri at Kansas City and an MBA in finance from the University of St. Thomas in Houston.
Like other young men with growing families, Grace spent the next few years building a career — first at an investment banking services firm and then at his father’s company, where he served customers as vice president of sales. More recently, he was co-founder and managing partner of Gulf Shore Venture Partners and a consultant for Capra Foods and Texas Aggregate Producers.
Although professional opportunities were bountiful, the practicing Catholic was in a spiritual desert. Encouraged by his wife, he attended an ACTS (Adoration, Community, Theology, and Service) retreat at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Frisco. The experience was life altering.
“ACTS was a new movement at the time and was certainly an eye-opener,” Grace enthused. “It started the process of reawakening my faith. That retreat changed everything for me.”
The gatherings help participants deepen their relationship with Christ and fellow parishioners through prayer, studying scripture, and service to God and each other.
“After being on an ACTS retreat, I saw major changes in people,” observed the former team leader who began organizing ACTS weekends at other parishes. “I saw men consider the diaconate and parishioners get super involved in the Church and different ministries. Some people quit drinking or stopped taking drugs.”
Entire parishes would undergo a transformation.
“It completely changed the environment of our parish,” the former Plano resident recalled. “We went from a fragmented community to one that was extremely vibrant. I was part of that.”
Grace began openly talking about his faith with friends, clients, and coworkers.
“It made me want to be part of a business or place with a culture that fostered what I was feeling about my faith, the world — everything,” he said earnestly. “That ultimately led me to this opportunity.”
After a nationwide search and series of interviews, the seasoned entrepreneur with 25 years of business development was hired by CCFW to fill the president/CEO vacancy left by Heather Reynolds. Highly regarded for spearheading the non-profit’s effort to end poverty one family at a time, she is now managing director of the Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities at the University of Notre Dame.
On the job since May 16, Grace is spending time with staff and learning more about the agency’s robust portfolio of 43 services. It includes two nationally-recognized initiatives — Padua, a research think tank evaluating the effectiveness of poverty-ending practices, and Stay the Course, a case management program helping at-risk students complete college.
He’s impressed by what he sees.
“The culture here is exceptional,” the new CEO stated emphatically. “Everyone believes in his or her heart we can eradicate poverty. They have a passion for what they do.”
In the short term, Grace hopes to raise the organization’s profile on social media and develop ways to continue mentoring clients once they become economically self-sufficient. With the population in North Texas mushrooming along with a demand for services, ramping up fundraising capabilities is another priority.
“We’re bringing people out of poverty but to do that — the way we do it — takes a certain level of money,” he pointed out.
Reynolds steered CCFW away from merely putting a Band-Aid on problems like hunger and homelessness toward a solution-based agency with a targeted goal — ending poverty in the 28-county diocese.
“What she did here we are not changing,” her successor promised. “We’re going to build on that legacy.”
Calling God the architect of his life, the CEO feels prepared to take on the challenge of leading Catholic Charities into the next decade.
“God put this into motion a long time ago. Everything I’ve experienced in my life led me here,” Grace mused from his office inside the organization’s Thornhill Drive headquarters. “The weight of it means I have to be an exceptional steward of this gift — this calling.”