Christian McGrath Just Got Here and Already Knows His Way Around. How?

By Jeff Wing   |   November 17, 2023

Once upon a time, an attorney from the Windy City (Chicago, for the uninitiated) decided to move on from the slings, arrows, and less definable rigors of the storied private equity firm in whose glass tower he’d long toiled. That is, he retired. Seeking greener pastures, sandy beaches, and maybe a low-slung, non-intimidating mountain range, Christian McGrath chose Santa Barbara as his new headquarters. Long an advocate and engaged participant in the not-for-profit world of Chicago, he knew he would likewise seek out and immerse himself in that community in Santa Barbara. But where to start?

To his mild surprise, this philanthropically-inclined former attorney discovered a book – one that fit his search terms like private equity fits recurring revenue. The book was called The Giving List, and in its content-rich, colorfully organized pages he found what he’d been looking for.

Here comes Mr. McGrath now to comment on his new home base, his pleasure in acquainting himself with Santa Barbara’s not-for-profit community, and the vexatious matter of the perfect taco.

Q: Do I understand correctly that you retired here in 2021 after serving those years as general counsel for GTCR in Chicago?

A: That’s right.

So how did you discover Santa Barbara?

My then-fiancée/now wife and I discussed – as we were blending our families – the possibility of moving to California. I’d always wanted to track back to California. I went undergrad to Stanford, so I knew the Bay Area a bit, and I’d lived in Los Angeles for a few years after graduation. So I knew both those places but didn’t really want another mega-city. So Angie and I decided to start taking our vacation openings and come out and visit smaller coastal cities in California. Neither of us had ever been to Santa Barbara. This was our first stop. We absolutely loved it. We’d briefly considered checking out Del Mar, maybe La Jolla? We actually never visited anywhere else. We were sold pretty much right away and remain delighted with the choice.

It’s good that you both agreed on the destination.

Yeah, that would have been difficult. But that first trip, we’re both like, WOW! First of all, why have we never been here before? But then the prospect arose – are you really allowed to live in a place that’s like this every day?

Has there been much cultural whiplash between Chicago and Santa Barbara for you? Or between the Midwest and California?

I wouldn’t describe any of it as whiplash. They are different. Chicago’s a giant city of three million, and Santa Barbara is 80,000. Obviously there’s a bunch of trade-offs from a big city to a smaller city. For us, most of them are positive. So would it be nice to have 10 Ethiopian restaurants close at hand? Yeah. But isn’t it also nice that it’s very small and warm and friendly and manageable? Chicago and “Midwestern” is a certain kind of warmth; there is an openness about people. Santa Barbara has this other kind of surfer chill openness that’s not exactly the Midwest vibe, but we find it very natural for us, and the people here are very inviting and warm the way we’re used to from Chicago.

Christian, can you just summarize your career for us?

It’s pretty easy. I was a lawyer my whole professional life, and there were kind of three chapters. I started in Chicago, but actually at a California-based firm called Latham & Watkins for six or seven years. Then – in legal jargon – I went “in-house” and spent about seven years as the general counsel of various business units of what used to be Sara Lee Corporation, in Chicago mostly, but also over in London. And then I moved to become the general counsel of GTCR. They hadn’t had a general counsel before and I spent 15 plus years there in an absolutely great job, very dynamic. I was sorry to leave it, but 15 years of anything is kind of a long time. So it felt like the right time.

And now to fast forward, you joined the Santa Barbara Museum of Art board of trustees back in February of this year. Is that right?

The timing sounds right. In Chicago I’d always been involved in not-for-profits. I always just think, frankly, it’s a thing one ought to do. It’s so rewarding. So as a young lawyer, that meant doing a lot of pro bono work for organizations that did things like assisting low-income, first-time home buyers – things I could do as a lawyer. As I got further in my career, it was things like being on the boards of the zoo, and I was on the board of a great theater company, and the Children’s Museum – institutions that I thought were wonderful, and that my family and the community connected to. So when we moved out here, I began really looking for opportunities with organizations that I believe in and respect, organizations that I can find a way to assist; not necessarily as a board member, though that’s something I’ve done. But maybe as a donor, maybe as a volunteer. I was looking to find places that I could plug into. Angie and I visited SBMA on a house-hunting trip and were pretty wowed. Then the museum had its Van Gogh exhibit shortly after we relocated. I identified it early on as an institution I’d be honored to be associated with.

So you’re an old hand at this, actually.

Yes, but they’re all different. And obviously Chicago is a community I knew very well. This makes it particularly exciting; a whole new group of people in Santa Barbara, and each of them has their own kind of network of other interests that – as you’re talking to them – you find and maybe track something that they’re interested in. It’s a great way to connect; not just to those people and to SBMA in my case, but to all their various interests, too.

You might say that once you arrive in a new community, besides the personal gratification, it’s a great way to drill into the social chemistry of a place, just because of all the connections between people – both within that space, and even outside of it.

Coming to a new community, yes – it’s an opportunity. As you talk to people, you’re asking ‘…How else do you spend your time? What other organizations are you involved in?’ They’ll mention two that don’t fit my interests, and then a third one that does. So, it’s a great way to learn about things that other people care about.

When you got to Santa Barbara and were looking around for nonprofits, was your search done through that kind of conversational synergy you’re describing? Or did you have occasion to use The Giving List as a reference guide?

For the first year I was here, when I’d explained to people that I was looking for not-for-profits to get involved in – almost everyone would say the same thing. “Oh, there’s so many of them here, that’s going to be easy!” And that’s true – there are a lot, and I guess it’s kinda easy. It’s just not necessarily easy to find that personal connection, you know? So The Giving List was actually an instrumental part of this. It was an acquaintance I met through The Giving List that ultimately tracked me to SBMA.

Then a month ago, looking at The Giving List again, I found this organization – Hospice of Santa Barbara – that I wasn’t familiar with, but is a cause I’m quite committed to, and it sounded like it was doing amazing work. I went to their annual gala and have had some conversations with them about getting involved. It’s a fantastic organization I honestly wouldn’t know existed except for The Giving List. So for me, The Giving List has been a great way to navigate a community of not-for-profits that I wasn’t at all familiar with.

You are certainly making Santa Barbara your own.

You’ve yet to ask about our favorite taco establishments – but I don’t know that I want to wade into that very dicey terrain.

Yeah. That’s the kind of third rail stuff we try to avoid.