Fred Sears is a familiar name among members of the Delaware business community, most recently known for his 13 year tenure with the Delaware Community Foundation (DCF), Sears has accomplished a lot for the state of Delaware. Under his watch, the DCF has tripled its long-term charitable funds and increased assets under management to $285 million.
Sears is also a familiar face in the banking world where he worked for 38 years, most notably as President of Commerce Bank in Delaware.
Regardless of his intentions to retire at the end of the calendar year, Fred Sears will continue in his most comfortable role, serving the state he loves. He was recently appointed Chair of the Expenditure Review Commission by Governor Jack Markell and will continue to serve on at least nine or ten of the current boards and commissions he is currently on.
Delaware Business (DB) had the chance to catch up with Mr. Sears with a few questions and a trip back in time for a look at his illustrious career.
DB: Where are you from?
FS: I was born in Delaware in what used to be known as Wilmington Hospital, now a part of Christiana Care Health System. My family lived across the river from the Brandywine Zoo; my mother walked home with me from the hospital. My father was in the military in WWII so he was not around at the time. My education was through Mt. Pleasant elementary school, Alfred I. DuPont junior high and Wilmington Friends for high school. I continued at the University of Delaware for my under graduate and graduate degrees so I never ventured far from Wilmington.
In the 1800s my mother’s family had livery stores selling horse and carriage and agriculture supplies at the corner of Front and Orange, now Martin Luther King and Orange. We had one of the first car dealerships in the area on N. Market Street in the 1920s
My great uncle was a city councilman. I did not find that out until I became a councilman in Wilmington 1976. My wife was born in Delaware and both of our parents were born in Delaware. I can actually trace my mother’s side of the family in Delaware back to the mid 1700’s.
DB: How did your career start?
FS: I majored in business at the University of Delaware. I didn’t have a job when I graduated in 1964, but my father encouraged me to apply to the local banks.
Fortunately, Delaware Trust was looking to hire a management trainee with a business degree and I applied at the right time. After 18 years with Delaware Trust and becoming the bank’s first VP of Business Development, I moved to Wilmington Trust in a similar position, and then vice president of customer service-related products at Beneficial National Bank. My banking career culminated with my job at Commerce Bank as Delaware Market President.
DB: What kind of work were you involved with when you worked for the city of Wilmington?
FS: My good friend, Mayor Tom Maloney, asked me to take a leave of absence from the bank to serve as Director of Finance and later as Director of Economic Development from 1973-76. I followed up by running for City Council and served two terms from 1976 to 1984.
I continued working with the City on a volunteer basis after I left Council serving as chair of the Downtown Wilmington Improvement Corporation, the Wilmington Economic Development Corporation and the Wilmington Waterways Commission. I continue to serve today as chair of the Wilmington Economic Financial Advisory Council and as treasurer of the Wilmington Housing Partnership.
DB: How did you transition into the nonprofit world?
FS: Jim Gilliam Jr. called me while I was sitting in my office and said “I have a job for you.” I said “Jim, I already have a job, you are calling me at my office and you are a customer of mine.” He asked me to run the Delaware Community Foundation. I was hesitant at the time but accepted it after some serious contemplation. I called my good friend Peter Morrow, he said “Do it, Fred.” Jim teamed up with other DCF board leaders, Judy Hoopes and Don Kirtley and they convinced me to make the move.
What’s so great about working at the Delaware Community Foundation is that I am still able to do all the volunteer work I enjoy. In addition to the Expenditure Review Commission I also serve on the State Council for Development and the Port of Wilmington boards along with Christiana Care, Leadership Delaware, United Way, Rodel Foundation, Beau Biden Foundation and DANA boards of directors and as an advisor to TD Bank and Fraunhofer USA.
I’m privileged to work with a great staff and outstanding committed board of directors at the DCF.
DB: What would you say was your favorite project?
FS: It really is difficult to pick, but one of my favorites was starting the Next Generation Board. We had some young adults in their early to mid-thirties, they wanted to get involved with the community but did not know how to do it. The Board has about 35-40 members, they have their own fundraisers and their own grant making. They really know how to run their own foundation. One of them left to become head of Saint Michael’s, another is on the board of the Opera House and one of them is on the Girls on the Run Board. They do site visits with the applicants and have had the opportunity to learn about Delaware. They said “Wow Mr. Sears, we went to this orphanage in Delaware, we didn’t even know there was one here.”
Every three years they pick a different funding focus. In past years they have focused on infant mortality, after school programs for kids at risk, childhood obesity but currently their focus is on STEM programs. We are on our fourth chair, his name is David Arthur. Dave works at the University of Delaware.
Keep an open mind, always look for opportunities.
DB: As I’m sure you know, there are many young professionals out there that look up to you. What kind of advice would you give?
FS: Keep an open mind, always look for opportunities. Part of what I’ve accomplished has happened because I’ve been out there involved in the community. Running golf tournaments, dinners and breakfasts, you can see who’s committed and who you can count on. You can pick and choose what you really want to do, what makes you feel good about life. I loved being a banker for many years but this job is unbelievable. I’ve found the secret that so many people look for. That secret is really enjoying work, not being dragged to work, but waking up looking forward to going to work.
Sometimes it is hard on the home front because I pretty much start every day with an 8am breakfast meeting and my day is not usually over until 7p.m. or 8 pm.
DB: Anything else?
FS: It was 1976 when I was elected to city council and we got married in 1977. Those first eight years of our marriage I served on council. We met every Thursday from 7 p.m. to 10 .p.m . The reporters would call me at home after the meetings and ask for comments. IT wasn’t the best way to start a marriage and raise young children but Jo Ann has always been supportive. I have to say it does help that we have the same political persuasion.
DB: What are grateful to have more time for during retirement?
FS: No real plans. Maybe take a few weeks off and do some soul searching about how much and where I want to continue to be involved in the community. I’m definitely not going anywhere and I intend to stay involved with the community at a level where I can be most helpful while still making more time for my wife and grandchildren.
Fred C. Sears II has been President and CEO of the Delaware Community Foundation since December 2002. Through his work with the Foundation, he encourages individuals, businesses and organizations to engage in long-term charitable giving to improve the statewide community, now and in the future. Fred has served as a community leader in the greater Wilmington area and with organizations serving residents throughout Delaware for over forty-five years.
James DeChene is the Chamber's Senior Vice President of Government Affairs.