Tuesday, April 30, 2002

Director wants to take zoo to the top

Gregg Hudson, after a year with the job, sticks to the business of making Cincinnati's the nation's best

By Mike Pulfer, mpulfer@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        His business background and no-nonsense approach are there, all right, tucked away behind his scrubbed, friendly face.

    A few of Gregg Hudson's favorite things:

    Animal: Emi, the first Sumatran rhinoceros to deliver a baby (Andalas, last September) in captivity in 112 years. “A true conservation breakthrough — and a great mom.”

    Spot at the zoo: Oriental Garden. “Probably the best-kept secret at the zoo. The peaceful setting includes a natural trail ... Japanese plants and their North American counterparts and a koi pond.”

    Exhibit: Manatee Springs. “A wonderful combination of fantastic animals, important conservation and great educational messages.”

    Pets at home: Three dogs: a Chocolate Lab (Bailey), a Golden Retriever (Annie) and a new Lhasa Apso (Tink).

    Movie: Big Chill. “It will make you laugh; it will make you cry. You see lots of yourself in a movie like that.”

    Music: Sting, Sheryl Crow, Bruce Springsteen

    Athletics: College basketball. “My first March Madness in Cincinnati, and I definitely caught the fever, especially since the zoo sits right between UC and Xavier.”

    Cincinnatians: Peter Frampton. “I am a huge music fan, and I figured if Peter Frampton thought Cincinnati was a great place to live, then it would be a great place for me.” And Johnny Bench. “He's been great for baseball and great for Cincinnati.”

    Books: A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold (Oxford University Press, $27.50) and Goodbye to a River by John Graves (Taylor Wilson, $8.95). Both are collections of essays about land and conservation.
   Pastimes: Whitewater rafting and golf

    Food: “Living in Texas for a number of years, I must admit that I have a love for Tex-Mex.”

    Car: “I am driving a Saab 95 Aero (sedan). It's a great ride with a lot of get-up-and-go.”

    Vacation spot: “I love taking my wife and daughters to Disney World.”

    Retirement spot: To be determined. “That's too far away to even think about right now.”

    First year

    In his first year as the director of the Cincinnati Zoo and Biological Gardens, Gregg Hudson has overseen:

    • Creation of a new logo, a new mission statement (Creating Adventure, Conveying Knowledge, Conserving Nature) and new strategic plan.

    • Planning for a new African-themed entrance at Vine Street and Erkenbrecher Avenue.

    • The return of Thane Maynard, a nationally recognized zoologist who once was the zoo's education director, to be vice president of the zoo's conservation foundation.

    • Revitalization of the staff in an atmosphere of teamwork. “He likes to choose the best person for a job and let her run with it,” says Mr. Maynard. “For me, I think many people here are working harder than ever, and the reason is he's a motivational leader.”
   • Improved food services and profits through commercial vendors. Burger King and United Dairy Farmers already have signed up for this summer.

    Coming up

    Next, zoo director Gregg Hudson plans:

    • A new 20,000-square-foot education center and animal hospital.

    • A new parking lot on the west side of Vine Street.

    • Bigger, better animal yards.

    • Rebuilding picnic areas, restrooms and parking lots.

    • An AM-radio designation with safari music and information about the zoo and its programs.

    Zoo statistics
   Established: 1875
   Animal population: 12,445
   Animal species: 600
   Endangered animal species: 60
   Plant species: 1,409
   Endangered plant species: 73
   Acres: 75
   Employees: 350
   Volunteers: 1,100
   Memberships: 45,500
   Attendance last year: 1.2 million
   Budget: $18 million
   President's salary: $200,000
        Still, the new director of the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, the first one to be known as president and chief executive officer, sounds hardly intimidating when he asks his staff the recurring tough question.

        “Is this fun enough?”

        This is Gregg Hudson, chosen last April to succeed retiring Ed Maruska, long synonymous with the zoo, where he served as its chief for more than 39 years.

        Among Mr. Hudson's objectives since he took over: To make every improvement and addition as entertaining as possible for the public and, internally, to include employees as much as possible in development, operations and strategic planning initiatives.

        Oh. And one other thing.

        “It won't take long at all for people to be calling us the best zoo in the country,” he says, straight-forward, matter-of-fact.

        While there is no official ranking for U.S. zoos, the local institution has become widely acclaimed within the exotic-animal industry and the public at-large.

        Many observers say Cincinnati lands in the top three, along with San Diego and the Bronx.

        “Certainly, this zoo (Cincinnati) is the most well-rounded in the country,” Mr. Hudson says, citing outstanding community support and the botanical gardens, now celebrating its 15th anniversary as part of the zoo title, and as part of the overall attraction.

        The local institution is ranked by zoo professionals as one of the top three zoos in the nation, following San Diego and the Bronx.

        “The zoo is legitimately held in extraordinary esteem throughout the country,” says Stuart Dornette, former board member and lawyer at Taft, Stettinius & Hollister.

        As head of the search committee for a Maruska replacement, he prepared a simple help-wanted ad for a national zoo publication.

        “We got top-notch candidates — somewhere in the 30s — from four continents in response to that ad,” he said. “And the number was not as impressive as the stature of the people ... a number of them with extraordinary backgrounds.”

        Mr. Hudson points to the zoo's conservation, breeding and education programs as key elements of its popularity and success.

        The zoo holds national records for births of lowland gorillas (47) and black rhinos (18) and exhibits 21 of the 37 species of exotic cats. It won the American Zoo and Aquarium Association Exhibit Award for Jungle Trails, its rain-forest exhibit, and it was cited by Newsweek as the “sexiest zoo” in America for the number of births that occur here.

        Its innovative Edzoocation Program has grown to include partnerships with 18 Greater Cincinnati elementary schools, many of them in inner-city neighborhoods with children who otherwise wouldn't have a chance to visit the zoo.

        As part of its conservation program, the zoo recently contributed and pledged more than $78,000 to the Bushmeat Crisis Task Force (to stop the illegal sale of wild-animal meat in Africa), Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, Okapi Wildlife Reserve, Park Relief Mission, Mbeli Bai Gorilla Study and other causes in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda.

        In fact, Mr. Hudson says, he has always admired the local zoo from afar, even borrowed ideas from its programs and features.

        When tapped for the local job, Mr. Hudson, now 43, was director of the Fort Worth, Texas, Zoological Association, where he was recognized for his marketing and promotion savvy and for new approaches to a well-maturing business.

        Here, we will see signs of his business background and interest and expertise in marketing and hospitality with the introduction of brand products at the zoo later this summer.

        Burger King and United Dairy Farmers for starters. Burger King will be found in the new Safari Camp (formerly Whiting Grove picnic area), and UDF will be across from Kroger Lords of the Arctic (polar bears). Prepackaged UDF will also be offered at a white cart with a UDF logo during the summer season.

        As part of his business approach to operations, Mr. Hudson announced earlier this month that more than 200 gift-shop volunteers would be replaced by an outside contractor, Event Network Inc. of San Diego.

        Event Network provides merchandising services to the Indianapolis Zoo, St. Louis Science Center, John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Memphis Rock N' Soul Museum and other attractions nationwide.

        Rising sales volumes and a more complex merchandising operation forced the zoo to add full-time paid employees, Mr. Hudson says. The volunteers, many of whom worked one day a week, are being shifted to other zoo departments.

        A vibrant new African-themed entrance at Vine Street and Erkenbrecher Avenue will announce excitement, Mr. Hudson says. “This is the zoo. You are about to go on a safari.”

        Other improvements on the front burner: Rebuilt restrooms, picnic areas and parking lots.

        Before moving to the zoo in Fort Worth, Mr. Hudson had managed three bars and a hotel-catering operation, all in Arlington, Texas. In his first job at the zoo, his focus was food service and hospitality.

        Leaving Texas after 30 years took careful consideration.

        “We didn't take this move lightly,” he says, referring to his wife, Sharon, and daughters Emily, 4, and Madison, 2.

        Still, “I underestimated how unique this would be. The zoo had had one leader for more than 30 (nearly 40) years; it had a lot of people (employees) who had started out here; and there was a lot of outside influence.”

        The zoo receives nearly two-thirds of its $18 million operating budget from private sources, and that means a lot of coddling of a lot of benefactors. Hamilton County tax revenues account for $6.2 million a year.

        In spite of the new surroundings, “It was a very smooth transition,” Mr. Hudson says in his office, overlooking Swan Lake, where ducks float across the surface.

        “I think Cincinnati has been welcoming to Gregg,” says Thane Maynard, vice president of the zoo's conservation foundation and former education director. Mr Maynard, who had been director of the Puget Sound Environmental Learning Center, Seattle, since February 2000, returned to Cincinnati last August.

        Mr. Hudson, he says, has been a welcome addition to the zoo.

        “Gregg is a people person,” he says, “a motivational leader (who) wants the zoo to be more fun, more vibrant .. .He is a very inclusive and collaborative guy.”

        Mr. Hudson wants others to buy in.

        “I like to make employees a part of the process, so there's some ownership there and it isn't just my vision,” Mr. Hudson said.

        From a management standpoint, “It's a new zoo,” says Lana Cookingham, a volunteer from St. Bernard. “It's an exciting time ... Everything is different. But everybody expects it to be great ... volunteers and staff alike.

        “It's not the same atmosphere,” she said. “He (Mr. Hudson) is very amenable to talking and listening to ideas (and) that's a wonderful attribute.

        Because he listened to employees, “The zoo's mission statement was focused, reshaped and boiled down to six words from its former rambling three dozen,” Mr. Maynard said. “What started out as "Blah, blah, blah conservation ... blah, blah, blah education, etc.' is now, officially, Creating Adventure, Conveying Knowledge, Conserving Nature.

        “We wanted a memorable, concise statement that was easy to assimilate into everything we do,” Mr. Hudson said.

        “Keep it simple,” says Mr. Maynard. “That's one of his themes.

        “Basically, Gregg's style is a blend of coach, when direction is needed, and cheerleader, when programs are under way.”

        “His character is very positive, engaged, enthusiastic about what he's doing at the zoo, I know,” says Ray Brokamp, director of Leadership Cincinnati, a program for future movers and shakers organized and directed by the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Cincinnati. Mr. Hudson is a member of the current class of 25.

        “He is bright, thoughtful, knowledgeable and inquisitive,” Mr. Brokamp says. “He is committed to the community as a whole.”

        “Best of all, he brings common sense and balance to the table,” Mr. Maynard says.

        “I have heard nothing but very strong, positive things,” says Mr. Dornette, the man who headed the search and persisted in courting Mr. Hudson, even though he was not among the original pool of candidates.

        Asked if he has a favorite spot at the zoo, Mr. Hudson says, “I'm still working on that.”

        Glancing out one of the three window walls that form his office, he says, “I never get to spend as much time as I want out there.”

        But, “when I come here with my 4-year-old, we spend our time in Insect World. That's her favorite.”

        Neighbors, friends and co-workers call Mr. Hudson a dedicated family man.

        Both of the Hudsons' daughters were adopted, from China.

        Mrs. Hudson, a former zoo teacher in Fort Worth, now volunteers at the International Adoption Program at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, where she is helping to organize a fundraiser for later this year.

        “I really love it here,” she says, claiming no signs of culture shock.

        Getting around town is another matter. “It is a hard area to get to know.”

        “I probably get lost more than she does,” her husband suggests.

        At work, Mr. Hudson calls himself “a catalyst for change” and assures that “Today's climate of business calls for change.”

        He begins with a new logo and a new mission statement and a new strategic plan.

        “The plan that was in place before was reactive rather than proactive,” he says. “The zoo had a lot of great parts, but it never reaped the benefits of those working in tandem. It never had a central clearing house, and there was a lot of duplication of effort.”

        Upcoming developments: a new 20,000-square-foot education center and animal hospital, a new parking lot on the west side of Vine Street, bigger, better animal yards, picnic areas and rest rooms, and an AM-radio designation with safari music and information about the zoo and its programs (Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport offers a similar feature).

        There is much to be done, zoo officials agree.

        Frequently, in reference to workloads and overloads and an effort to keep up, Mr. Hudson has been heard to remark, with a chuckle, “We're drinking from the fire hose here.”

        On the commercialization of the park by local and national food brands, he says, “We're going to treat this very much like a business. Aside from the convenience factor for visitors, we need these profit generators to maximize revenue potential to fund our other programs, like conservation and education.”

        “It's exciting to see people work together as a team,” Mr. Hudson says.

        “He likes to choose the best person for a job and let her run with it,” says Mr. Maynard. “For me, I think many people here are working harder than ever.”

        Apparently the boss has motivated himself.

        “I'm more excited now than I was the first day I started the job,” he says. “Cincinnati has been such a great opportunity for me.”

        “He is known as hard working,” says Mr. Maynard. “He is certainly not the first person to leave in the afternoon.”

        Twenty-five minutes after he does leave the office, he is home, on Anderson Township's Watch Hill, where he lives with his family in a traditional-styled, two-storyhouse with three decks overlooking a wooded valley with occasional deer.

        At home, Mr. Hudson partners with his wife in family tasks and family fun.

        Unabashedly adoring when it comes to his daughters, he says, “We feel so lucky.”

        “Gregg and Sharon are a great asset to the community,” says Tim Mathile, a zoo board member and, for Mr. Hudson, a new friend.

        “He's a very warm person, easy to get to know and get along with ... The staff likes Gregg's approach ... He relies on team members to do what they're hired to do.”

        “Cincinnati is a great place to raise a family,” says Mr. Hudson, who had lived in Fort Wayne and Cleveland as a youth. “It's fun to be in an area with all the special things Cincinnati has to offer ... especially in the summer, with all the festivals.”

        “It's very similar to Fort Worth,” says his wife. “A big city that feels like a small town.”

        With most of the Hudsons' relatives in Texas, many have been visiting the Queen City since last summer.

        “I've been introducing them to the requisite Skyline chili, Montgomery Inn ribs and Graeter's ice cream.” Mr. Hudson says.

        Cincinnati was not being identified by its specialty foods when he told Texas friends about his new job. The day after the zoo announced his appointment here, Stephen Roach, then a Cincinnati police officer, shot and killed Timothy Thomas, setting off spring riots and enduring probes into racial relations in the Queen City.

        In Texas, “You'd have thought that the town was on fire,” he said. “People asked me if I was sure I wanted to move my family here.

        “I tried to convince them that the diversity of Cincinnati is what makes it special.”

        Mr. Hudson made several trips to Cincinnati in the three months following his appointment but maintained his residence in Texas until July to complete work on a long-term zoo project, the Texas Wildlife Exhibit.

        He promises equal dedication to projects here.

        “It's got its challenges,” he said. “Cincinnati is a place in which change is a lot more difficult than in other cities.

        “But that's what makes it special, too.

        “This community supports its zoo like I've never seen.”


- Director wants to take zoo to the top
Pair of parties celebrate the city
Urban League rolls out red carpet
Back to the Stone Age
Best sellers
Two new book clubs off to strong starts
Two-tone empire expands at Rookwood Commons
Vintage stores hold wardrobe treasures
'Anton' peeks behind the stage
CBS close to Dan Rather contract extension
Grammy chief resigns suddenly
Indy symphony names conductor
Local channels deep into digital
Woman helps law enforcement eat cake - for 23 years
Get To It