How Thom Stork encourages employees’ off the wall ideas at The Florida Aquarium Featured

8:42pm EDT October 31, 2011
How Thom Stork encourages employees’ off the wall ideas at The Florida Aquarium

Thom Stork was walking through The Florida Aquarium one day when he passed by the shark exhibits. As he watched the divers swimming in the tanks, his curiosity led him to begin posing questions to a nearby employee: ‘How many people go in the tank? How often? Has anyone ever been bitten?’ And before long, he asked the kicker: ‘Can we put our guest in there?’

“He looked at me like I was crazy, ran away and came back a few days later,” says Stork, who became president and CEO of The Florida Aquarium Inc. in 2002.  “Then he said, ‘OK. Listen, we can do this.’”

Before heading up Tampa’s not-for profit aquarium, Stork worked as a marketing executive for Busch Entertainment Corp. for nearly three decades. When he retired, he was approached by the aquarium’s chairman with a proposal to bring his marketing expertise to running the organization.

“I said, ‘I’m not a scientist. I’m not a biologist. I’m not an oceanographer. I’m a marketing, business guy,’” Stork says. “And he said, ‘That’s what we need.’”

Since the aquarium implemented its “Dive with the sharks” program, the exhibit has been extremely profitable and remains sold out. It’s these kinds of unique and memorable experiences that connect people to the organization Stork aims to create every day. To accomplish that, he encourages his people to run with their ideas, even when they seem a bit nuts.

“They come to my office,” Stork says. “They grab me in the hallway or they grab me over in the restaurant and say, ‘Have you ever thought about doing this?’ Every time you hear that you go ‘Yeah! Let’s think about that.’”

In addition to offering encouragement, when you ask people to be proactive in trying new things you’ve also got to be able to demonstrate follow through and constructive feedback once they do. Otherwise, people may get discouraged.

“They have got to understand that it failed,” Stork says. “It failed. This did not work, and here is the reason why. Or ask them, ‘Why did it fail?’ Just have that dialogue.

“They know they are not going to be criticized for wacky-ass ideas.”

When a dive master presented his idea for a “Biologist for the day” program to the senior management team, Stork gave him kudos but also asked him to think bigger picture than the proposed $300 annual profit. The employee was able to rework the program, which today brings the organization thousands in revenue.

“I went, ‘Michael, you did an incredible piece of work here, but here is my challenge for you,’” he says. “‘I want you to go back and I want you to figure out how we can make $30,000.’ He was thinking in a not-for-profit mindset.”

Whether it’s creating new education programs or adding unique events and exhibits — the aquarium recently developed a one-of-a-kind penguin attraction — Stork challenges his 159 employees to explore the boundless possibilities for growth while staying committed to the mission of the organization.

“I believe strongly in the adage that there is not an original idea,” he says. “So I constantly look at what other facilities of our type are doing. I read extensively about new products that are out there for zoos and aquariums and theme parks, trying to determine what works in terms of bringing people through the front door. But then I also do put on my mission hat and say is it good for our business, does it further our mission, does it further our culture?

“So today I say, when I do retire, my legacy will be that I was able to take a bunch of scientists, biologists, teachers and environmentalists and turn them into entrepreneurs, to think about how to make the business work.”

How to reach: The Florida Aquarium Inc., (813) 273-4000 or www.flaquarium.org

Capital ideas

Thom Stork, president and CEO of The Florida Aquarium Inc., is always asking guests what they want to see at the aquarium, whether it’s dolphins, sea lions or what he and his team affectionately call “big-ass sharks.” Yet now that the organization is in a position to look comfortably into its financial future, prioritizing what people want versus what the business needs has become more important.

“In the analysis of everything, you have to look at the things you need to do to further round out this facility and this business,” Stork says. “So we’ve spent a lot of time over the last 18 months looking at what we need to do.”

This year, Stork spearheaded a $15 million capital campaign to address the needs of the organization’s 700,000 annual visitors and 100,000 school kids who visit for its education programs. The project, which broke ground in September, will incorporate lobby renovations, expand classrooms — there are currently two — and add much-needed event and exhibit space, including a ballroom to seat 500 people.

“The priority is ‘What do we need?’” Stork says. “All of those things have a return on investment. They will produce revenues for the aquarium which will further grow the aquarium.”