After four years leading the quasi-public Massachusetts Port Authority, chief executive Lisa Wieland plans to step down on Nov. 3 to join utility National Grid as its New England president.
The Massport board on Thursday voted to appoint Ed Freni, the port authority’s aviation director, as interim CEO when Wieland departs, to provide time for the board to conduct a full executive search.
Wieland gave brief remarks about her departure after discussing the change in executive session with board members.
“I have been so fortunate to work with an amazing team,” Wieland said. “I am so grateful to the board for giving me this opportunity of a lifetime.”
Wieland has spent roughly 17 years at Massport in various roles, including as port director and director of human resources strategy. She was promoted to the top position in 2019 after Thomas Glynn stepped down from the job.
Wieland has been leading what is arguably the most influential quasi-public authority in the state, one that is considered an important economic engine for Greater Boston. Massport controls Logan Airport, Hanscom Field, and Worcester Regional Airport, as well as the cargo and cruise ship terminals in South Boston and several major nearby development parcels. She earns a salary of nearly $400,000 a year as chief executive.
Wieland helped guide the port authority to a safe landing once COVID-19 arrived and grounded most flights, upending years of growth at Logan Airport and sapping most of the business from the authority’s primary revenue source. She embarked on some tough budget cuts early on and pared back ambitious expansion plans. But she also kept several projects going forward in the hopes that Logan’s high-flying days would eventually return. Most notably, she pushed on with an expansion of Terminal E that’s set to open later this month, with four additional gates, down from initial plans for seven. President Biden visited last year to trumpet $62 million in federal aid, the most that any major airport in the United States received under the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, in large part to pay for improvements to the existing terminal.
Also under Wieland’s leadership, the port authority wrapped up a major expansion at the Conley shipping terminal in South Boston and embarked on an effort to reach net-zero for carbon emissions across its facilities by 2031.
“We could not have asked for a better CEO,” said Patricia Jacobs, a board member who became chair last month.
In an interview after the board meeting, Wieland said she’s particularly intrigued by the opportunity at National Grid to help the state meet its ambitious climate goals, particularly with regard to reducing carbon emissions.
“National Grid is leading the energy transformation, and that’s a very exciting place to be,” Wieland said.
Wieland had a background in consulting with Bain & Co. and an MBA from Harvard Business School before joining Massport. She said several “outside opportunities” have come her way during her tenure at the port authority, but she was driven to stay because of the satisfaction she got from working with her colleagues. She didn’t go looking for the National Grid job and when first approached by a search firm late last year, she said she wasn’t interested, then agreed to reconsider earlier this year.
“The fact you get to work with people who are talented, dedicated, and committed makes this such an amazing place to work,” she said. “This was a very hard decision.”
Glynn, Wieland’s predecessor as Massport chief executive, said he was impressed with her data-driven decision making.
“She did a phenomenal job during COVID when they lost 90 percent of their business for a while,” said Glynn, noting that he expects Massport board members to look for “a professional public manager with transportation experience” to fill the job.
Wieland’s possible departure first became public last month, after the port authority filed a disclosure form on Wieland’s behalf with the state Ethics Commission, indicating that she was involved in job discussions with a company that might have business before the port authority and that she would recuse herself from any Massport decisions involving that company. Massport later confirmed to the Globe that the company is National Grid.
As National Grid’s New England president, Wieland’s primary responsibility will include oversight of the company’s electric and gas utility systems in Massachusetts. National Grid also has a natural gas liquefaction facility in Providence and some electricity transmission lines in New Hampshire. Wieland will take over for Stephen Woerner, who plans to leave the job at the end of the year. She will report directly to chief executive John Pettigrew, who is based in the United Kingdom, National Grid’s home country.
Freni, another longtime Massport employee, said he looks forward to taking over the interim job and keeping the Massport operation cruising along smoothly.
“My goal is to do what I’ve done in the past and keep this place going and move it in the direction that the board wants to be in,” Freni said.
The choice for the next CEO will be up to the Massport board, which consists primarily of gubernatorial appointees, mostly from the Baker administration era. The board will in all likelihood hire a headhunting firm to conduct a broad search. Last time, two familiar faces rose to the top as finalists: Wieland and Brian Golden, then the head of the Boston Planning & Development Agency.
Board member John Nucci said he hopes that top candidates this time around again are people with local ties, given the various ways that Massport connects with the communities where its facilities are located.
“I don’t think we need to look around the world for the next CEO,” said Nucci, a lifelong East Boston resident who is the designated community representative on the board. “It’s important that somebody bring [a] working knowledge of the city, the region, and the people who have to be dealt with. ... You need someone who understands the external world, not just nuts-and-bolts management of the airport and the port. And I think you only get that with a local candidate.”