Monday, December 08, 2008

Lowry Park Zoo: A Wild Thing (Maddux Business Report cover story)

By Bob Andelman
October 2008
Maddux Business Report

(Author's Note: This story changed more than most from the time it was assigned and written until the time it was published. What follows is the original feature story, submitted before Lex Salisbury's entanglements became fully realized. The final published story was edited with late breaking updates--and for length.)

There are many reasons for the city of Tampa to take extraordinary pride in the rampant growth and success of the Lowry Park Zoo, but let’s start with this one: Relative to its almost $20 million budget for 2009, the zoo doesn’t cost taxpayers much dough.

Just five percent—about $1 million—of the zoo’s operating funds come from city and county funds. That’s a remarkable achievement in an industry that largely runs as a public charity in most places.

C. Lex Salisbury, president and CEO of the zoo, takes great pride in not only keeping his operation from the public till, but in also delivering value to the businesses and individuals who have made the attraction one of the fastest growing of its kind in the United States.

• • •

Fourteen years ago, the city of Tampa handed Salisbury the keys to the kingdom—the Lowry Park animal kingdom, the one that the Humane Society once rated as one of the five worst zoos in North America. “Here’s our zoo,” the city taunted. “See what you can do with it.

Salisbury returned the city’s challenge by:

• Leading Lowry Park Zoo to become the highest attended nonprofit zoo in Florida;

• Overseeing the completion and opening of the Harrell Discovery Center, Saunders Conservation Theater, Birds of Prey theater, Lorikeet Landing; Endangered Species Carousel; Stingray Bay; and Wallaroo Station.

• And opened “Zoo School”—officially, the Florida Environmental Education Center, it is the only accredited school (for preschool children, teens and youth at risk) in the country run by a zoo ;

Six years later, the city came back to Salisbury. “Not bad,” it said. “Here’s another 13 acres; see what you can do with this.”

He and his team—now including veteran administrators and managers from the Palm Beach Zoo (Craig Pugh), Busch Gardens (David Zimmerman) and MOSI/The Museum of Science & Industry (Mark Butler)—once more rose to the challenge by:

• Developing and opening Safari Africa, which includes Africa Village, Penguin Beach and Ituri Forest;

• Coaxing attendance to top 1 million visitors annually for the first time;

• Prepared to open a white “albino” alligator exhibit, Gator Falls water flume ride, and the piece de resistance, the 17,000-square-foot, game-changing Safari Lodge, which will provide covered restaurant, special event and meeting space.

Not that everyday has been a smooth or perfect one.

When a Sumatran tiger escaped from its enclosure at the zoo in August 2006 due to a mistake by a staffer and the tiger lunged at a veterinarian, Salisbury calmly took out a rifle and shot the animal. It shocked the community, but didn’t shake the zoo leader.

• • •

As a business, Lowry Park Zoo—despite losing money six months of the year—is a consistent winner.

The average level of public operating subsidy for a zoo the size of Lowry Park is about 55 percent— or about 50 percent more than Lowry Park Zoo draws. The largest part of its gross income—80 percent—is derived from an old-fashioned source: gate receipts. After that, money flows—from largest to smallest amount—through food and gift shop sales, contributions, special events and education.

“There are only five zoos in North America—out of all 200 Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited zoos—that had five years of sustained growth, and we were Number One among those,” Salisbury says.

Wait a minute, you’re thinking: What about Miami? What about the MetroZoo? It must be about four or five times the size of Lowry Park—and even bigger before Hurricane Andrew. How can anyone compare the two?

“They had 523,000 visitors in 2006,” Salisbury says. “They have a $15 million budget. They’re run by the county—300 developed acres.”

“Three hundred acres, and we’re 56,” says deputy zoo director Craig Pugh.

“And they’re in a metro population of 2.3 million,” adds Salisbury.

“The biggest metro population in Florida, of course,” says Pugh.

Hardly a fair fight. But the Tampa zoo is kicking the Miami’s zoo monkey butt.

The question is, how?

“I think the reason we’re doing so well,” says Salisbury, “is that we try to exceed people’s expectations. If you come here, it’s A) a good deal; B) there’s a lot of things to do; and C) it always changes, it’s a fun place. A lot of zoos that are run by municipalities feel that their primary focus is conservation, and that’s not why people come to the zoo. Our exit survey data show that less than one-tenth of 1 percent of people come to the zoo to be educated. They come for fun, and they come to be with their family, and it’s a recreational thing. If you look out there, there are a lot of young kids, and kids are animal-focused. Even before they’re verbal, they have almost a hard-wired desire to be around animals and discover more about animals, and their parents realize that.”

• • •

There’s that—and the success the zoo achieved in engaging the corporate business community in its mission.

Chris Sullivan—the co-founder of Tampa-based Outback Steakhouse and its parent company, OSI—has left fingerprints all over charitable and community organizations across the Tampa Bay area, and Lowry Park Zoo is no exception. Sullivan was the zoo’s chairman of the board when Salbury was promoted from the animal department to director of the entire shebang.

“I learned a lot from him just in terms of his non-bureaucratic approach to business,” Salisbury says, “and it was this simple form of a lean staff approach and being goal-oriented and not activity-oriented and people working in groups and sort of being ruthless about the customer experience and trying to be perfect in allocating capital and hiring the right people and just very simple, wise stuff that he taught me in the beginning.”

Did we mention that Salisbury gets quite excited when talking about Lowry Park and that his sentences start to run on because he can’t get it all out at once and as soon as he starts a thought another one piles on and then the next…

“When we didn’t have any real direction, (Sullivan) underwrote some organizational psychologists to come in, the cost for them to come in and help us with our principles and beliefs, which are all about the non-negotiable stuff that we’re all about, which is that we’re gonna try our best to save animals from extinction and we’re gonna be fiscally prudent and we understand that we can’t succeed as a conservation organization unless we have money to fund these things, and the people that think that they can do great things without being fiscally-sound are not around for long.”

As ugly as that sentence is to read, Salisbury’s enthusiasm and exuberance is a beautiful thing to witness. It is exactly what you want in a person straddling nonprofit status with a mid-size business mindset, right?

“So,” he continues, “we’ve been able to have a fairly commercial side to our business, which supports a pretty benevolent side or a side that’s really got a moral purpose, not that all of it doesn’t have a moral purpose, having kids ride a ride out there and being happy. We just built this flume ride, and we’re getting a new set of emotions that I’ve never seen here in the 21 years I’ve been here, which is like people screaming and laughing and getting completely wet.”

Pugh steps in to give his boss a chance to catch his breath: “It’s part of their take-away experience. It’s just a piece of everything else, and when they go home, they feel good because they had fun, and they learned something somewhere along the line, too.”

Okay, Salisbury’s ready to resume.

“People are motivated to come here to have fun,” he says, “and we would like to have them learn something about how to save species while they are here and appreciate the living world so that we take these species with us into the future and sort of build a constituency for nature conservation. That’s really the underlying desire of everything that we do, but we have to do it in a way that pays the bills.”

The Bank of America Charitable Foundation was impressed. It announced—unsolicited, according to Salisbury—a $1 million grant—an “Anchor Award”—to Lowry Park.

“We’re like, why?” Salisbury says. “They said it’s because we’re an anchor in the community, the biggest employer in the area now, and we’re bringing in $150 million in economic impact.”

If you want to put it in perspective, the last local grant the bank made in this class was to the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center.

• • •

If you’ve ever attended a Lowry Park Zoo fundraiser, you know that these guys know not only how to separate Tampa Bay’s moneyed from their wallets, but they also know how to throw a party:

• Karamu is the annual black tie dinner gala; in 2007, it attracted 399 guests and raised $180,000 for the zoo;

• Zoofari is a “wild” food fest featuring local restaurants and live music; in 2007, it drew 4,700 and raised $194,000;

• Wild Wonderland is a winter festival replete with reindeer and Santa Claus; in 2007, it drew 15,600 and raised $118,500;

• WaZoo—which USA Today named one of the “10 Great Beer Festivals in the Country”—is an adult event featuring micro-beer tastings from around the world, a wine garden, food and live entertainment; in 2007, it attracted 4,800 and raised $107,000;

• Zoo Boo is the way Lowry Park celebrates Halloween. It occurs over multiple dates in September and October and gives employees—led by Cjief Operating Officer David Zimmerman—a chance to demonstrate creativity and craft not always present in their everyday duties; in 2007, it drew 37,000 guests and raised a whopping $402,000.

The greatest thing about most of these events is that they’re at night and offer a unique view of the zoo’s animals and their habitats.

• • •

Chris Sullivan may have influenced the business plan at Lowry Park Zoo, but his company is hardly the only one whose dollars are in evidence:

• Wal-Mart defrays costs on days when the zoo lowers admission a few times a year to just $5 a person, making a day in the park available to almost everyone.

• Fisher-Price provided a small place for nursing mothers to have a quiet place off to do their thing.

“It’s got to make good business sense for everybody,” Craig says.

Who’s next?

“A corporation that’s providing a million- dollar leadership grant could help draw public attention to the importance of an animal care facility,” says Craig. “ It might be a pharmaceutical company or a company that focuses on medical or education or financial or health, a fairly wide range.”

Also on the wish list: a breeding facility and an animal quarantine facility where creatures being imported to the United States from around the global could safely and legally enter the country. “A half a million dollars would enable us to erect that facility promptly to carry on and do the work of conservation that is essential for species survival of some of the most critically-endangered on the planet,” Craig says.

If your interest in getting financially involved is piqued by six or seven figures is out of your comfort zone, don’t despair.

“We’re basically the gateway to the tropics,” Craig says, “yet that’s one sector missing from our exhibit plan that we want to do next. Someone offering $25,000 a year could provide annual operating support that defrays the cost of operating one of those exhibits.”

Seems like a bargain, really—help your community, help your company, maybe get invited to one of Lowry Park Zoo’s rockin’ cool parties.

“We’re here for the long-term,” Craig says. “We don’t chase quarterly results because we’re assuming your business wants to be here for the long-term, too. We’re looking for your commitment over many years. Three years or five years would enable us to stabilize our operations because, every annual year that starts for us on October 1, we wouldn’t be starting from zero. We would know that we could count on your operating support and then turn our limited staff attention to other businesses to follow your example. And what we would do is let others know the leadership role you are playing in helping us stabilize annual operation, keep it affordable and support the programs.”

Damn, these guys are good. They just turned a business magazine cover story into a public service announcement.

[Get Copyright Permissions]Copyright 2008 Bob Andelman. Click here for copyright permissions!

Some stories may appear in unedited versions that are different from their print counterparts.

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