CENTRAL JERSEY: Heather Achenbach starts as new executive director of SAVE

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Heather Achenbach is the new executive director of SAVE.

By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer
Heather L. Achenbach walked out of her office Wednesday afternoon, into the summer sunshine, “probably to walk a dog,” she said on the third day of her new job.
Achenbach, the recently hired executive director of SAVE, A Friend to Homeless Animals, in Skillman, leads an organization with 20 employees and an annual budget of around $1 million, not to mention volunteers who help the nonprofit pet shelter fulfill its mission.
SAVE, which had been in Princeton since its founding in 1941, cares for dogs and cats from a multi-million dollar campus that opened in December 2015, on Route 601, that includes a shelter and a renovated 19th-century-mansion that serves as SAVE’s office.
In an interview, Achenbach explained how a now 43-year-old woman originally from central Pennsylvania launched a career in the pharmaceutical industry, why she left a six-figure-income job and what her vision is for the organization she is charged with running. She believes SAVE has “a lot of room for growth and opportunity to support this community and homeless pets.”
“And that is because I don’t think we’ve achieved the visibility that we could, so we have a lot of room for opportunity and visibility,” she said.
Her road to SAVE started in Pine Grove, Pennsylvania, not far from Hershey, in a town small enough where the entire population could fit into Princeton University’s Jadwin Gymnasium and have plenty of room left over. She descended from German immigrants; one grandfather was a coal miner, another was a businessman. Growing up, she was the middle child of three siblings, in between two brothers. She said her love of animals came from a cousin who lived on a farm.
“We would go there quite a bit to visit, and I particularly liked going because they always had barn cats who had kittens,” Achenbach recalled of the childhood experience. “And my obsession was going and finding the kittens and playing with the kittens.”
She majored in psychology at Ursinus College and, right after graduating in 1996, she took a job working for a pharmaceutical company. Other career stops would follow, including the last, at Novo Nordisk.
She did well financially, she lived in a 1,600-square-foot townhouse in Montgomery and she worked as a senior director managing 165 people. But she became burned out, and she could not see herself spending another 20 years in the pharmaceutical industry, into her early 60s.
“I always knew where I was going, always,” she said. “And it was always going to another position, to do something different. So sometimes I made lateral moves, sometimes I was climbing up the corporate ladder. But I was always moving onto something or to a project, something that I found exciting and new and challenging.”
But she found herself not sure what the next step would be. Her ego told her to become a vice president, but her heart told her something else.
“I think it became what is fulfilling to me,” she said. “And I think for 20 years, chasing jobs in the pharmaceutical industry … was really fulfilling for me, I felt great about it. And I just started to say, looking higher doesn’t look good to me anymore.”
With enough money in the bank, she felt secure enough to quit her job and take time off. She left at the end of June 2016, embarking on a journey that eventually led her to work as a receptionist for her veterinarian, who told her about the opening at SAVE.
She was familiar with the organization, one that she had supported financially and from which she adopted two pets. At the end of March, she applied to replace Piper H. Burrows as executive director and went through three interviews, with her prospective employer interested in her ability to manage people and to raise money for a nonprofit that relies on donations.
“With every interview I had, I felt like I was hitting it further and further out of the park,” she said. “When I left after my last interview where I had met with the staff and all those board members, I told people … I felt like I floated out of here in a cloud, I drove home on one.”
Satisfied that she had done everything to get the job, she was comfortable with the outcome, no matter how it turned out.
Hired for the position, she runs a nonprofit that has to find ways to sustain itself. That means getting people to continue financially supporting an organization that went from the equivalent of operating from a slum in the South Bronx, in a run-down facility on Herrontown Road, to the equivalent of living on Park Avenue.
“That could easily be mistaken as having enough money to sustain itself,” she said. “So we’re faced with a new challenge, and our new challenge is we need to keep people motivated to keep us funded or we can’t maintain this amazing property.”
She has lofty ambitions.
“My ultimate goal, and it is the goal of SAVE, is that we put an end to homeless animals,” she said, “which means we’re getting people to spay and neuter and to care for animals such that they don’t need to be housed temporarily here anymore.”