The Minnesota Zoo has settled on its next director: a Minnesotan who is CEO of a San Francisco-area conservation coalition.

The zoo's search committee on Monday unanimously named John Frawley, CEO of Bay.org, a nonprofit group, the sole finalist for the position.

If approved by the zoo's board, Frawley would succeed Lee Ehmke, who left the Apple Valley zoo after 15 years in August to become director of the Houston Zoo.

Frawley, 51, is an alumnus of Red Wing High School and Minnesota State University, Mankato. He would be returning to his Minnesota roots after spending 20 years developing a coalition of organizations to protect and restore the San Francisco Bay.

"I'm honored to have been selected by the search committee as their preferred candidate, and I am excited to return home and join a team focused on protecting animals and ecosystems from Minnesota and around the world," Frawley said in a Minnesota Zoo news release. "There is the saying 'I left my heart in San Francisco,' but my heart has always been in Minnesota, and I'm excited to return and work on the zoo's critical mission."

The zoo's board of directors will vote on Frawley's selection at its Jan. 27 meeting. He could start his position as soon as mid-February.

During his time as CEO of Aquarium of the Bay, Frawley spearheaded Bay.org, an alliance among five California organizations to take on conservation and restoration of the Bay Area watershed.

Minneapolis search firm LymanDoran and the committee chose Frawley out of 200 candidates for the position. LymanDoran performed the search for the past zoo president, Ehmke, in 2000.

Beth Burns, vice president for external relations for the zoo, said the Minnesota Zoo Foundation paid $80,000 in fees to the search firm, including travel expenses for the candidates.

"John seems to be bringing a lot of skills and passion into the organizations that are going to carry forward the [zoo's] strategic plan," Burns said.

Frawley met the search committee's criteria of a track record of successful business leadership, a passionate commitment to conservation and strong ties to Minnesota, she said.

Once selected, Frawley also would oversee the Minnesota Zoo Foundation, the nonprofit fundraising arm for the zoo.

After graduating from Mankato, Frawley worked at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Texas and then spent four years as a zookeeper for the Minnesota Zoo.

Frawley went on to serve on the management team of the former Knott's Camp Snoopy at the Mall of America and later as director for Underwater World.

He moved to San Francisco in 1996 and became CEO of Bay.org. Under his leadership, he kick-started conservation efforts, developed creative partnerships and created strong relationships governmental agencies. While he was CEO, Aquarium of the Bay saw a 92 percent attendance increase since 2001, according to the zoo's release.

"His Minnesota roots, record of building successful public and private partnerships, and expertise in conservation-related issues are perfectly matched to the needs of our institution," Peter Maritz, chairman of the Minnesota Zoo board of directors, said in the release. "John is excited to re-establish roots here in Minnesota and begin working with the individuals and organizations who can help us fulfill our mission to save wildlife."