Bernie McKay takes reins of the Haile Foundation

He was born his parents’ ninth child and ninth son. Despite an obvious propensity for boys, Margaret Jane and Patrick McKay did not have a boy’s name chosen when he was born. So they left the hospital and went home to the following headline in the Ledger Independent, the local Maysville paper: “Unnamed boy makes baseball team for the McKays.” 

Bernie McKay, president and CEO of the Haile Foundation (Photo by Amy Spasoff for Movers & Makers)

Bernard McKay is now 53, named, and in charge of The Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr. Foundation. The foundation is dedicated to improving the quality of life in Greater Cincinnati, emphasizing arts and culture, education, human services and community development.

Since its founding 15 years ago, the Haile Foundation had been run by Tim Maloney, president and CEO, and Leslie Maloney, senior vice president and education program manager. The Maloneys ran the foundation with flair and determination. Their retirement last year left some big shoes to fill. 

Bernie – everyone calls him Bernie – McKay is up for the task as the new president and CEO. But first, he wanted to hit the pause button. 

“This is the first leadership transition in the 15 years that Haile has existed,” McKay said. “We have an obligation to reflect, reset and reframe. What do we do great? What do we wish we did better? What projects do we regret? What projects do we wish we picked up, but had not?”

This approach, this willingness to slow down and to pivot if necessary, is what made McKay so appealing as a candidate. 

“Bernie, besides his obvious intellect and unquestionable ethics, is an idea man, a collaborator, he’s thoughtful and thorough,” said Vickie Buyniski Gluckman, one of five members of the foundation’s advisory board. “He works hard to obtain a deep understanding of our community’s problems as well as the possible solutions. And like myself, Bernie loves our city and each unique community.”

And it almost did not happen.

McKay was very happy at his law firm, Frost Brown Todd. He was an equity partner, giving him job security. But it was more than that. McKay enjoyed his work focusing on trusts, estates and charitable giving, and he also loved the firm where he had spent his entire 28-year legal career. 

“I spent a great deal of my waking hours at the firm working alongside my colleagues and we experienced life together. I went to their children’s weddings; they attended my parents’ funerals. We cared about one another,” McKay said.

And the work itself was rewarding. Clients in estate work would have to trust McKay with sensitive information about their finances and their personal relationships. “And it was my job to distill all of that information into documents that spoke for the client when the client was unable to do so. Not only was it a huge honor, the process typically resulted in a unique and meaningful attorney-client relationship.”

Frost Brown Todd was also a place that accepted him exactly as he was. “I loved that firm. They allowed me, a gay guy from Maysville, Ky., to have a meaningful career.” Bernie and his husband, Zack Weber, live in the East Row Historic District in Newport. 

So he was in no rush to leave, but the timing was interesting when the job opened at the foundation. In 2022, McKay had just started asking himself how he could find meaningful work in addition to his law practice. He gave himself one year to decide what he wanted to do, and how he wanted to do it. He thought maybe he would take a sabbatical. Or maybe work one day a week at a nonprofit he respected. Or maybe serve on additional boards. Or perhaps quit law altogether, and work someplace that made a difference. “Everything was on the table,” McKay said. The only thing he knew for certain was that he would take the full year so he could be thoughtful and methodical. 

Two days later he got a call about the head spot opening at the foundation. It was too soon, too much and ultimately too tempting. His initial instinct was to not even pursue it. Then he asked for more information. Then he threw his hat in the ring. Then he got the offer. Still, it was a lot. 

“I was scared. I had security. It felt like jumping off a cliff and grabbing onto a trapeze,” but McKay was not going to let fear stop him. “I figured that, even if I failed, people would be able to say: ‘Well, he tried.’”

He also really wanted the job. “I can be part of making this a better place to live and to work.” 

So the man who was so invested in his work he went by the nickname “Bernie the Attorney” walked away from the only job he ever held as an adult. He went from equity partner to at-will employee. One of his brothers asked if he was having a nervous breakdown. But Bernie’s husband was fully supportive. That helped a lot. 

So did the fact that Tim Maloney was supportive from the very beginning. “We had long conversations,” Bernie said. “The first time we really talked, Tim said: ‘Bernie, we are here to help, but this is your project now.’ ” 

Bernie McKay, Haile Foundation by Amy Spasoff
Bernie McKay, at Carol Ann’s Carousel (Photo by Amy Spasoff for Movers & Makers)

The foundation exists because of the generous spirit of the Hailes. They made a fortune in banking and never had children. So they formed this foundation to improve our community, giving money in 10 area counties – three in Northern Kentucky, five in Southwest Ohio and two in Indiana. 

The foundation was started with approximately $180 million, and has given away 2,600 grants worth $185,876,117 in its first 15 years. Smart investment keeps the money growing, with McKay saying the value is now just south of $300 million. Still, the giving might slow down in the immediate future. The foundation gave away $14 million in 2022 and is likely to grant less this year. 

As an attorney, McKay measured his time in six-minute increments, so clients could pay exactly what they owed the firm. Yes, six minutes. Now he is thinking far longer term. “We are taking this opportunity to carefully scrutinize what we are doing and why we are doing it. To be clear on who we are and to know exactly who we want to be.”

McKay first saw what the foundation could do when he was serving on the board of the Women’s Crisis Center in Hebron, Ky. This was a passion project for him because his mother was always open about the fact that she grew up in a home with domestic violence. 

Haile gave the Women’s Crisis Center – which is now The Ion Center for Violence Prevention – $1 million. “I was impressed from the get-go with Tim and Haile. They made a real difference.”

This is probably why McKay applied for the job, and why he took it. He knows he can make a difference, and sees the work as almost a calling.

“It is a sacred position,” McKay said. “I do not take it lightly.”