Ursula Burns is the first black woman to helm a Fortune 500 company, the former CEO of Xerox, and now the chairwoman of the powerful strategic advisory firm Teneo.

She’s also an old crony of Declan Kelly, who just resigned from the helm of Teneo last week after news spilled out that he allegedly got drunk at a VIP charity event and acted inappropriately with as many as six different women.

Burns and Kelly’s ties stretch back to the early days of Teneo, when she hired the firm while at the helm of Xerox. When she left Xerox in 2017, Teneo handed her a lucrative consulting gig (in keeping with Teneo’s playbook with other big-named CEOs including IBM’s Ginni Rometty and Dow Chemical’s Andrew Liveris.)

In April, Burns and Kelly even founded a buyout firm with two other partners called Integrum. According to one source, Kelly stepped away from Integrum when he stepped down at Teneo last week. A spokesman for Integrum declined to comment, citing that the firm is in active fundraising. 

On one hand, Tuesday’s appointment of Burns as chairwoman of Teneo looks like a coup for the embattled firm, industry insiders said.

Ursula Burns, pictured with former President Obama, became the first black woman to head a Fortune 500 company as CEO of Xerox.
Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

“Teneo was hemorrhaging clients so they needed to do something bold,” said one source, who called Burns’ appointment “compelling” as it sends the message that the company is embracing a new direction with a female executive of color.

But in the same breath, the source added that the 62-year-old CEO is a “longtime pal” of Kelly, and that the news couldn’t help but look like it had Kelly’s fingerprints all over it. Insiders are speculating, admittedly with no evidence to go on, whether part of Burns’ job will be to help Kelly salvage his career.

“Declan got her the job. She’s a friend of his,” another industry opined. ”Declan is still a Teneo shareholder. She’s going to do right by him.”

Declan Kelly
Declan Kelly resigned as CEO of Teneo after his “embarrassing” behavior at a charity event last month.
Patrick McMullan via Getty Image

Exactly what that could mean is still uncertain. For instance, it is unclear if Kelly is currently negotiating his exit package or if Burns, as chairwoman, would have a say in his payout. A source close to the firm insisted that there are no plans for Kelly to advise Burns.

“Being good to him is super dicey for her,” warned a source. “She’s got a pretty stellar brand.”

A bigger issue is whether Burns will be able to salvage Teneo, which has already lost General Motors as a client.

“Declan could sell anything to anybody. He could sell ice to the Eskimos. He was just one of the great PR salespeople in the industry,” the source said. “Ursula is a really great exec but does she know PR?”

Teneo declined to comment. Private equity firm CVC, which owns a majority stake in the consultancy, did not return requests for comment. 

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