Tom Stalf, president and CEO of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, started as a zookeeper in his hometown of Coal Valley, Illinois. He was responsible for reptiles, big cats and elephants.
“I worked in a fairly small zoo, and by doing that, you have to wear many hats. It gave me so much information that I was able to grow — and go from zoo keeping to education to management and then to CEO,” Stalf says.
By working his way up from the bottom, Stalf learned every step of the way. Like many business leaders, that experience makes it easier to manage the whole organization when you get to the top.
Drawing on knowledge of the industry
After 20 years in Illinois, Stalf made the move over to Columbus’ much bigger zoo in 2010, which employs 2,000 people, earns $76 million in annual revenue and has a $240 million economic impact each year.
“My transition from my hometown zoo to Columbus was so much easier for me because I had the experience that I needed from beginning as an entry-level zoo staff and working up to senior management,” he says. “That on-the-job training was so essential for me. It’s easy for me to help with design and management because I know what it takes to run the zoo.”
In the zoo industry, many CEOs, presidents or executive directors come from banks and businesses, and they struggle, Stalf says. Three or four years after they start, the majority of them are gone.
Zoos are just different.
“When you’re dealing with animals and guests and staff, there is so much diversity in your management of your job as the leader,” Stalf says. “This isn’t about balancing numbers. It’s about animal welfare and it’s about guest experience, and then it’s about balancing numbers.
“And it’s a struggle for folks to jump into the zoo world at the top. Most people are not successful.”
Bringing in repeat customers
Managing the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium is even more challenging because it’s more diverse than most zoological institutions. But that diversity is what keeps guests coming back again and again.
The zoo has a for-profit water park, a public golf course, a strong educational component and a 10,000-acre conservation facility. The zoo’s largest expansion in history, Heart of Africa — where a soybean field was turned into a savanna —opened at the end of May.
Fifty-six percent of the zoo’s visitors, some 82,000 households, buy a membership so they can return on multiple days, experiencing the many different options from aquariums and safaris to swimming, golfing, camping and zip lines.