King of the jungle Featured

6:55am EDT October 29, 2006
Jack Hanna is the kind of business leader more executives should emulate.

The director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium makes his own phone calls, personally responds to handwritten letters and prefers to deal with business issues immediately.

“I can’t stand it when somebody calls me and says, ‘I need to talk to you about something. Can we set up a lunch in a week or two?’ The answer off the bat is, ‘No,’” he says. “If you want to discuss something, whether it’s a TV show or a frog, that’s just how I operate. Is it time-consuming? Yes. Is it the best way to operate a business? Maybe not, but people have their answers real quick.

“I firmly believe that if there’s a problem in business, get it taken care of now.”

Known to fans as “Jungle Jack,” Hanna hosts “Jack Hanna’s Animal Adventures,” a nationally syndicated television series that reaches 95 percent of U.S. households every weekend and is viewed in more than 60 countries. Some may call him a celebrity, but he prefers to call himself an animal ambassador.

A dream fulfilled
Growing up in Tennessee, Hanna worked for the family veterinarian and spent Sunday nights watching “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.” As a student at Muskingum College, he always kept an eye on his goal of becoming a zookeeper and traveling the world to study animals.

“I never dreamed that I’d be able to go to every continent and go to Africa 50-some times,” he says. “I’m sitting here, hitting myself every day, going, ‘I can’t believe I’m doing this.’”

His father, a real estate agent, taught him that hard work and enthusiasm are the keys to success in the business world, and although Hanna says school was difficult for him, he studied hard and says that no one could outwork him.

After short stints as a pet shop owner and as director of a Florida Zoo, Hanna arrived at the Columbus Zoo in 1978 to serve as its executive director and began promoting the institution to anyone who would listen. After a 1983 appearance on “Good Morning America,” the media blitz began, and Hanna became a regular guest on “The Late Show with David Letterman” and “Larry King Live.”

Today, Hanna says Columbus is home to the largest zoo in North America, with nearly 1.3 million visitors last year. Local voters passed a levy in 2005 that will bring in $190 million to the zoo over the next 10 years.

Leading the way
Hanna has adopted a leadership style akin to that of John McConnell, chairman and CEO of Columbus-based Worthington Industries.

“I’ve known Mr. Mac since I got here in 1978, and it’s the same Golden Rule: You treat other people like you’d want to be treated,” Hanna says. “That’s what I’ve always done. I don’t care if it’s the guy that’s picking up all the animal manure, or the person that does the flowers here, or the assistant zoo director — everyone should be treated the same at the Columbus Zoo. I would never ask anybody to do anything that I haven’t done.”

Hanna says business leaders can inspire their employees by working hard and loving what they do.

“If they see that, then they’re going to say, ‘Maybe I should start doing it that way,’” he says. “A leader is the kind of person who gets out there and works with employees. They watch you: Are you putting in an eight-hour day or an 18-hour day?”

Creating a legacy
In addition to his television show, personal appearances and his duties to the zoo, Hanna has recently adopted Rwanda as a special project.

“I’m now dedicating my life to helping turn around Rwanda, not just the gorillas and the animals, but helping the orphanages that we sponsor over there,” he says. “Paul Kagame — he’s the president of Rwanda and a friend of mine — has me working on the tourism aspect of the country.”

Hanna has joined with Bill Gates and other well-known sponsors to create opportunities in Rwanda, which he calls “the jewel of Africa.”

“I’ve met TV celebrities, presidents of countries and done all kinds of stuff, every kind of TV show there is,” he says. “That’s all great and dandy, but that doesn’t mean anything when it comes down to what you’ve accomplished. I hope I’ve had a part of making the Columbus Zoo not just one of the finest zoos in the country but a place where, in the future, millions of people can visit and learn something about our Earth’s resources and animals.

“That’s hopefully something I’ve left behind. That’s what drives me.”

HOW TO REACH: Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, (614) 645-3550 or www.columbuszoo.org