Determining what most people would be surprised to know about me is a hard one because I wear everything on my sleeve. Let’s say I’m compassionately competitive. People, either see me as super competitive or super compassionate, but I think you can be compassionately competitive. I love a challenge. I love to put the benchmarks out there and try to achieve things that are unachievable. But by the same token, it’s not just for the win, right? To say, “Oh, look what we did.” There’s a compassionate side of it. What I like to do, what we do here at the Florida Aquarium and what I do personally, is to raise all boats in our community to make it a better place. I think if you don’t have that compassion in that competitive space then you just win at all sums. And then nobody really truly wins at the end of the day. If you’re too compassionate and you’re not competitive, then you’re just stagnant. So I’m compassionately competitive.
My parents are from Chicago. We are southside Chicagoans. They grew up, my dad in a very German community and my mom, Lithuanian. So they had their pockets on the southwest side of the city of Chicago. It’s kind of the blue-collar, hardscrabble part of the city. I was born on the south side of the city of Chicago and grew up on the edge of the southwest suburbs. My dad is a retired railroad inspector — the guy who put on the Carhartts and worked the trains all day long to make sure that they were running on time. Chicago is a big hub for railroads. My mom is a retired public school teacher. I grew up in a very blue-collar family on the southwest side of Chicago and learned that work ethic at a young age. I had paper routes. I had all kinds of things to work and earn a living. Probably by the time I was 12 or 13, I was, you know, doing everything from [pushing] stone in wheelbarrows to building things. I never really did the retail side as a lot of high school kids did. I always was in that physical construction — probably because I played sports and I just wanted to stay competitive and on edge.
My grandparents were all first-generation U.S. citizens. Especially on my mom’s side, they came to visit this region starting back in the late ’60s and ’70s. They would stay at the little motels along Madeira Beach and Treasure Island and then eventually became more snowbirds with a condo over there. We would always come down every year for either the Christmas holidays or summer break. We would drive in the station wagon, and my sister and I would fight who gets to sit backwards down I-75. So we had a long-standing history here with our connection with the Tampa Bay region. And then when I got married and we started having kids, we would come down here and do the same thing. We would take various breaks and rent a condo on Indian Rocks Beach and spend some time here. So when the opportunity came to relocate here and become the president and CEO of the Florida Aquarium, we knew the community. We knew it was a place that we liked. If any place was going to pull us away from our hometown of Chicago and how we were living and very blessed there, this was it because we had a comfort level here, we loved the area, and we loved what was happening.
My background is in mass communications with a minor in political science from the University of Illinois up in Chicago. So when I went into school, I was like, I’m a pre-law major. That’s what I was first thinking going in. Then I loved architecture, so I was like, well, maybe I’ll pursue that. By the time my junior year hit, I recognized that mass comm, journalism, all those English teachers throughout high school, who said, ‘Do what you love, and you’re good at it… Why don’t you double down on that?’ So by going to the University of Illinois in Chicago, I had the opportunity to do an internship at the [local] ABC affiliate, which is still the top TV station in Chicago, and really fell in love. I am bringing that up because my degree for being a person who runs an aquarium is totally different. So I worked in television for awhile. I packed up my car in the early ’90s and moved out to Los Angeles, even, and tried to do the whole Hollywood thing. I ended up working some freelance work for Vin Di Bona Productions, which was doing America’s Funniest Home Videos. But back in the Midwest, because I had moved back to Chicago, I was in TV, but I made the move to public relations. Then I went to work for the state and local government and politics, but all still kind of in the communications world. In 2000, I had the ability to go to the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago as the marketing-communications person and fell in love with its mission. I grew up on the south side of Chicago. I went to places like the Shedd Aquarium, the Brookfield Zoo and others. I thought they were cool places. To be honest with you, in 2000, I was like, I’ll go work over at the Shedd Aquarium for a while and see where it goes. But I fell in love with the mission and what zoos and aquariums can do. Within the next six to eight months, I went to my boss and CEO at the time at the Shedd and I said, “I want to be you someday.” Not for the CEO title, but to be at a place where I can have the greatest influence on protecting our environment, saving animals from extinction and giving back to the community. That was the beginning of a 17-year journey that in June of 2017, gave me the opportunity to sit in this seat, and I have been here ever since. I tell kids all the time, I would never get locked into the idea of a linear career because I thought I’d be a TV guy or end up doing stuff in politics and public service. And the next thing you know, I’m running one of the best aquariums in the country.
I think that there’s a couple of elements to my business philosophy. One is to aim high. Have a North Star that guides you to be the best of the best. Always pursue excellence. I tell all of our team here to benchmark Madison Avenue. Benchmark the organizations that are the best of the best, and let’s try to set that North Star. It’s a commitment to excellence, and we deliver on the excellence. Don’t benchmark the colleagues locally or even in similar size cities. And that’s not a negative on them, but aim high. That’s one. I think the other philosophy is, and I know it’s cliché to say, but it’s work hard and play hard.
The saying goes, if you love what you do, you never work a day in your life. I try to emulate that philosophy. When we’re here, because we have such a lofty purpose, and that’s to save wildlife from extinction, you only get a certain amount of time to do it and a certain window to do it. But by the same token, if it consumes every ounce of your day and your being, then you’re not going to be as good as you can be. So that “play hard” is really, really important. We encourage that here. We encourage not only time off, but even through the pandemic, we took a day off. We called it a wellness day, and we closed to the public. We’re a nonprofit that relies on people buying tickets, but we closed to the public, and we made it a wellness day. It was not, “We’re giving you a day off,” or, “Here’s another vacation day.” It was a true wellness day. Everybody here either took yoga classes, painted, went fishing — not in our tanks! — out in the bay. We did all those fun things. If you’re going to really truly save wildlife from extinction, it takes everything you have. But you have to recharge those batteries as well. Then the last thing I’ll say is, and my staff knows this, it’s a word called “kaizen.” It’s Japanese, and it means continuous improvement. I think those are the three things. It’s not that we did something wrong, but we should always be continuously improving. We should work as hard as we can because we’ve got a lofty goal, but also relax and unplug, and then aim high. Don’t settle.
2020 has taught me a couple of things. One is you’re never prepared for a pandemic, but what I was very happy about is we assembled an amazing team, and we developed a strategic plan that did not take the pandemic into account, but because we were so focused on aiming high and being the best that we can be, we actually were able to thrive through the pandemic. So what it showed us is that our business strategies and models work in good times and in bad times. And that’s what I think is really key. That when we went through the pandemic, you know, we didn’t just like Band-Aid things or have to hibernate. We actively fulfilled our mission and our operations because our principles and our strategies work in good and bad times. So that’s, I think, a really great strong validation because we probably are having our best year right now that we’ve had in 26 years, coming through the pandemic. Yes, there’s some support [needed] in various areas, but we should end the year at one of our highest revenue totals ever. And that says a lot. No. 2 is I think what the pandemic reminded me of is we should operate this organization on principles and not necessarily X’s and O’s or data points. When we had to shut down, I went to our board, and I said, give us guiding principles. Don’t give us directives, like I want this amount of employees, and I want a 10% cut. What are those principles? Principles like we’re never, ever going to compromise on animal welfare. Whatever we had to do, that’s on the table. They said, have limited if any impact on your staff. And that’s the principle we followed. Now, that could have meant a whole bunch of things, but they left it up to us to do the principles. Be innovative, be creative, be nimble as the principle. So we went back and we applied those guiding principles to every decision that we made. What I like to say is we may not have made every right decision, but we made every decision from the right place. And I think that paid off. So as I look even in good times moving forward, and we’re going through our budget process right now, we have to remember those principles. When we’re having hard conversations of, like, do we bring back a program that was shuttered or not? Does it meet the principle? Not, was it good either for the bottom line? Or was it good for something else? I think that’s the biggest thing that we’ve learned that will help us moving forward. So it was some validation but also some tweaks to the business and how we operate.
I will say that I married up to my wife. I mean, that was absolutely incredible. And then I have two kids. I have a sixth-grader and a fifth-grader. It’s just an honor to be a husband, partner and a dad. Those are pretty amazing. I don’t think anything touches that. I’ve lived a very, very blessed life. I have no regrets. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t have problems and it doesn’t mean that I didn’t screw up, but I have no regrets because I believe everything happened for a reason. And I’ve been extremely blessed, both in my career and in [my] personal life, to do some amazing things, to meet amazing people, to have various recognitions of what I’ve been able to do and where I’ve given back. It’s pretty humbling and pretty cool. I wear that family on my proud sleeve very much, as you probably can tell from pictures behind me and all over that you can’t even see.
I think honestly the biggest item on my bucket list is probably to hang out with either Bono and U2 or Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters — just hang out with them. I think that would be awesome.
I have a pretty eclectic music taste. I think part of that is probably growing up in the ’70s and ’80s when I think there was this divergence of music. You’re coming out of disco, to hard rock, to punk, to ’80s New Wave, to rap. So if you were to go onto my Sirius XM or Apple Music or Pandora, you’ll hear everything from like ESPN talk radio to classic rock, to New Wave ’80s to alternative rock to pop. Then there’s the classics, the Sinatra channel and stuff. It’s really across the board. If you were to ask my kids, who are in fifth and sixth grade, there are days we’re having dinner, listening to Ella Fitzgerald, and the next day we’ve got the turntable and the vinyl going and it’s the Foo Fighters or The Cure. U2 is probably my favorite band of all time. I have followed them religiously and have been to an inordinate amount of concerts, including ones like the Pop tour that they kind of almost faltered with. But probably Foo, Depeche Mode and U2. Bucket list, I would love to have dinner with them, go to a concert behind the scenes, just my wife and I, and hang out with them.
I am prolific at making pancake art. I love to cook. My dad’s from a family of 11. His father had passed away at a young age. Because he was in the middle, he had to step up and cook a lot. So my dad’s an awesome cook. He kinda kind of instilled that in me. So I love to cook, I’ll cook things from scratch and probably don’t do it as much in this role because of the demands. So I’ll make a set of pancakes in the morning, and if my little guy is into baseball, I’ll make baseball figurines out of the pancakes and chocolate chips and strawberries. My daughter was into horses at one point, so I made horses. Trust me, there are a lot of times you just don’t make it right. For Easter one year I made the three crosses on the hill with rabbits and whipped cream. That’s when I have the most fun because the kids wake up in the morning on a Saturday and they’re like, “What’s dad making today?” It takes creativity. So pancake art is what I love to do for my kids.
When I say I would love to wake up tomorrow morning with a bank account that is like Jeff Bezos’s bank account, it would be for the purpose of literally just giving it away, as much as we can to the community and helping the community. Because right now, without the treasure, we are giving our time and talent. We travel as a family and we go to food banks and help. We do cleanups, we give things away. That’s who we are and we want to pay it forward, really. So I would love to have unlimited resources for the purpose of setting up a 501c(3) in our kids’ names and just giving that money away. Live in the same house we had — we’ve actually had those conversations. I wouldn’t change the house. I wouldn’t change the car I drive. Give it away.
I live practically a perfect day all the time, but my perfect day would be getting up in the morning and everybody’s having breakfast with the family, then coming to work. I believe I work for an organization that has a mission and a purpose. In that perfect day what would be great is, did we save animals? Did we educate people and kids? Did we deliver on our mission and our purpose? Leave maybe a little bit early, go home and go to my son’s Little League baseball game followed by my daughter in her theater performance, and then end the night with a big bowl of ice cream and start it all over again.