Friday, April 06, 2001

New zoo director strong on business

He built up sponsorships during Fort Worth tenure

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Greggory Hudson, 42, is the new president and CEO of the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, succeeding Ed Maruska, who retired Dec. 31, 2000, after 39 years.

        Mr. Hudson, a soft-spoken Fort Wayne, Ind., native who has lived in Texas for the past 30 years but never picked up a drawl, has been with the Fort Worth Zoological Association since 1991 and director since 1995.

        He expects to have his family — wife Sharon, daughters Emily, 3, and Madison, 18 months — moved here by July 1 when he takes over full time at the second oldest zoo in the nation. He'll be the ninth person to run Cincinnati's zoo since its 1875 founding. Philadelphia has the oldest by 14 months.

[photo] The Cincinnati Zoo's new director, Greggory A. Hudson (right), talks with his predecessor, Edward J. Maruska. Mr. Hudson's appointment was announced Thursday.
(Tony Jones photo)
| ZOOM |
        Mr. Hudson takes over at a time when the zoo has been enjoying stable attendance — 1.2 million a year — and a stable budget at $18 million a year.

        “This has long been my favorite zoo,” he said Thursday outside the zoo's African Veldt.

        “What attracted me is I think it's the most well-rounded zoo in the country. The collection, of course, is amazing, but the other aspects, the conservation programs, breeding programs, CREW (Center for Research of Endangered Wildlife), education, the unbelievable community support, they all played a role.

        “We've actually built a lot of our Fort Worth programs on models here,” he said, smiling broadly.

        He said most everything Thursday with a broad smile, and punctuated every other sentence or so with a laugh, even when talking about how seriously he's taking his new job.

        Praise began piling up immediately after the announcement.

        Former Cincinnatian Ted Beattie, director of Chicago's Shedd Aquarium, president of the American Zoological and Aquarium Association and the former Fort Worth zoo director who hired Mr. Hudson, thinks he's a perfect choice:

        “You got a good one. I think he's one of the top people in the profession, not only strong on zoo experience, but strong on business experience, a great people person, a good people manager and someone who gets involved in his community.

        “And he knows his stuff. I'd rank Fort Worth in the top 10, and believe me, it wasn't always that way.

        “On top of that, he's a down to earth, kind individual. He'll fit well in this environment.”

        Outgoing director Mr. Maruska agreed. “His background in marketing and business development, plus a strong sense of the zoo's mission, are going to make him very good at this job. I plan to stay out of his way and offer advice only when asked.”

On fast track
        Unlike many zoo directors, Mr. Hudson has no background in animal science. He has a degree in marketing and management from the University of Texas at Arlington, class of 1982. He paid his way through college working at Six Flags Texas, where he started as a busboy at age 16, then went into the hospitality industry, managing a string of restaurants, sports bars and hotels.

        He entered the zoo world in 1991 as director of Fort Worth's food-service operation. He worked his way through the ranks — director of guest services, then manager of park operations.

        He co-managed the park from 1993 to '95 with Mike Fouraker, named Thursday as Mr. Hudson's successor in Fort Worth.

        “I think he moved so fast because he's great with people,” Mr. Beattie said. “He hires the best, gives them what they need then gets out of the way. Then, they're all working together to build a great zoo. He's big on teamwork.”

        But he's not all work. He's also a devoted country music and rock 'n' roll fan — Tricia Yearwood, Martina McBride and Bruce Springsteen are favorites, says wife Sharon, a Texas native who sounds like one. He also loves to vacation in places he's never been, exploring them in his Lexus RX300.

        But there hasn't been a lot of time for that. He became Fort Worth's director in 1995 and has spent most of the last six years guiding the zoo through a rebuilding project that included Thundering Plains, an exhibit of animals native to the American Southwest, and Texas Wild!, a $35 million to $40 million exhibit of jaguars, coyotes, raptors, horned toads, scorpions and tarantulas.

        “I kept a very simple philosophy through all that,” Mr. Hudson said, lighting up that smile again. “Always exceed expectations ... so people come away from a zoo experience thinking they got more than they bargained for.”

Maruska's legacy
        Mr. Hudson's appointment here ends a 14-month search that brought dozens of applicants from four continents, said Stuart Dornette, chair of the seven-member search committee.

        The large number of applicants reflects Cincinnati's stature in the zoo world. There are no official zoo rankings, but within the industry Cincinnati is considered the nation's No. 3 zoo, behind Bronx and San Diego.

        There's also that string of records and firsts that go with the Maruska legacy: U.S. record for lowland gorilla births at 47; U.S. record for black rhino births at 18; first zoo in 112 years to successfully breed a Sumatran rhino; first test tube gorilla; first insectarium in the U.S.; only zoo in U.S. with a breeding pair of Sumatran rhinos.

        “You have a tremendously complex zoo here,” Mr. Hudson said. “I see it as eight or nine different business operations — animal husbandry, conservation, horticulture. But in my mind, it's already the top zoo. I see areas for improvement, but no radical changes. Mostly I'll build on Ed's foundation.

        “At the same time, it's not my intention to come in here and put things on automatic pilot.”

        Mr. Hudson's willingness to build on Mr. Maruska's foundation was a key consideration in his hiring. Mr. Dornette said more than once during the search process, “Throughout the zoo world, there is tremendous respect for Ed and what he's done here. Our desire is to find someone to build on that. Whoever comes in has to understand that and be determined not to rest on those laurels.”

        Mr. Fouraker, Mr. Hudson's relacement in Fort Worth, said Mr. Hudson often introduces “a new way of looking at things” and mentioned the corporate sponsorships he developed in Texas.

        “We have a Starbucks here, and I don't think you can find a Starbucks at any other zoo,” he said.

        He was not surprised by Mr. Hudson's announcement, given their regard for Cincinnati and that fact that it's a much larger operation.

        “We all say we're one of the best,” Mr. Fouraker said. “But Cincinnati is always one of the top five.”

        “Community-wise, I plan to get involved here, too," Mr. Hudson said. “It's a responsibility, I feel, to give as much back as you can.

        “Both Sharon and I want to get involved with international adoptions. Both our girls are from China, so it's something we've become very committed to.”

        Family and community come up a lot in a conversation with Mr. Hudson: “I feel one of the most important things I can do in my job here is to put myself in a position to provide staff with the resources they need to do their job, and that includes getting involved in the community. I'd like to see more outreach in the form of working on boards and that sort of thing.”

        For Mr. Maruska, who's headed to a 16-day African trip in a few weeks, Mr. Hudson's arrival is “the weight of the world off my shoulders. I hope Gregg has as much fun as I did. It's a very enjoyable profession, challenging and meaningful at this time in our history, with zoos playing more of a role in the conservation of species.”

        “It is a challenging job,” Mr. Hudson agrees, “but I think Cincinnati is going to be a wonderful place to do it. It's a lot like Fort Worth — a big small town with a strong sense of community and a positive place to raise a family.”

       Mike Pulfer of the Enquirer contributed to this report.


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