July 22, 2015
Eight years ago, when Vik Dewan stepped into the top job at the Philadelphia Zoo, it was a risky choice. Virtually everyone in the industry still thought that only an experienced zookeeper could run such a complex organization.
But the board had concluded that after years of boom and bust cycles, the 156-year old institution needed fundamental change. So they ignored conventional wisdom and went looking for someone who understood money.
“When Vik walked in the door, I put down my notepad and told everyone in the room that as far as I was concerned, we could stop looking, because we just found our guy,” said Jay Calvert, a partner at Morgan Lewis, recent chairman of the board, and head of the search committee that hired Dewan. “Vik had the perfect background, with a wide range of experience in his banking career, and was someone who had handled really complex businesses. Plus, he was extremely articulate and very, very smart.”
It took some convincing to get everyone to agree they should offer him the job. But lucky they did.
Because the results are in.
Not only has Dewan put the Zoo on a financial path that many other non-profit cultural institutions can only envy, he’s unleashed a string of innovations that have redefined best practices for zoos all over the country. And the way he’s done it has established him as one of the region’s most effective and innovative leaders.
“Of course, we all look brilliant now,” said Calvert. “He’s turned out to be even better than I thought he was going to be.”
Before Dewan got started, the Zoo had been stuck in a self-defeating cycle that’s all too familiar among Philadelphia’s cultural institutions. In order to increase attendance, every three to five years it would raise funds for a major exhibit of some kind, during which time it would go into the red in order to finance basic operations. The new exhibit would bring a spike in visitors, so it would go into the black again for a year or so. Then attendance would inevitably drop off again. It would run back into the red, only worse this time, since the new exhibit needed to be maintained, which increased overall operating costs. So then the cycle would start all over again.
A former banker, Dewan put an immediate stop to that. Any new capital project, he insisted, had to come with enough funds for maintaining it as well as for building it. Since 2008, they’ve raised an extra 10 percent over building costs to put into the endowment for every new project, so that long-term maintenance doesn’t drain the everyday operating budget.
It’s such a sensible fix, one wonders what took so long.
“Vik has made a difference because he's embraced change .... There is growing recognition that under Vik's leadership, the Zoo has emerged as a world-class institution and a leading innovator.” – Molly Morrison, president of the Natural Lands Trust
“I understand how it happened, because when it comes to fund raising, sometimes you stagger across the finish line,” said Dewan. “But if you tell donors that you want to honor their commitment to the organization and the legacy they are creating by being responsible now about the funds that will be needed to maintain it into the future, they get that, and they appreciate it.”
Next, he set about getting the Zoo to earn more of its own money, rather than depending on donors just to keep the lights on. Most non-profits typically depend on gifts for up to a third of their everyday operating costs, but he wanted donors to give more big money toward innovative capital projects that could help the Zoo really grow. So he set a goal of covering the everyday costs with ticket sales and other earned income. The Zoo drew 1.35 million visitors last year.
That meant really raising their game, coming up with creative new programs and earning more loyalty from repeat visitors. Not only did the Zoo have to conceive and develop more ways to attract and engage its visitors, it also had to improve the overall visitor experience – keeping the place spotlessly clean, for instance, and providing interesting and educational interactions with all staff members, from ticket sellers to senior zookeepers.
It was a transformational agenda, and from the start, Dewan displayed a leadership style that pushed hard while including everyone. He launched a series of conversations with a whole range of people about how to move forward, both inside and outside the zoo.
“What I’ve seen is that he is a guy who can find talent, put it into right position, and then drive people to be the best they can be. He pushes them to be creative, and the more creative they become, the more innovative the zoo becomes,” said Calvert. “He demands a lot, but never more than what he demands of himself. Some would say he expects too much. They are some of the same people who’ve done the best work of their careers as a result. So I don’t see it as a weakness, but a trait of all good leaders.”
Obviously, it’s worked. When Dewan arrived, the Zoo was earning just 72 percent of operating costs with ticket sales and other earned income. This year it’s 90 percent – a dramatic shift for just eight years.
“Any other cultural institution in our region, let alone any other zoo in the country, would fall over backwards to get those kind of numbers,” said Calvert.
The 42-acre Philadelphia Zoo was the nation’s first zoo; it’s also among the smallest. When Dewan arrived, it needed to grow, but it was constrained on all sides. The situation was so dire that some were even talking about a possible move out of its historic West Philadelphia campus.
“We are part of the fabric of West Philadelphia, and we wanted to stay that way,” he said.
So, under his leadership, the Zoo took a giant leap of imagination and came up with Philadelphia Zoo 360 – a series of aerial and underground trail networks that would allow the animals to travel throughout the campus, effectively extending their habitat in three dimensions.
The net effect of the program is that the animals inhabit the space much more naturally, and are able to move about among visitors just as visitors move about among them. So, while people are exploring and watching what the animals are doing, the animals are exploring and watching what the people are doing.
So what started out as a solution for increasing real estate turned out to be a game-changer for zoos all across the country. And it’s not just popular with visitors. Animal behaviorists hail the innovation as an enhancement to the psychological well-being of the animals.
“You see an Amur leopard up above you, and you notice that he’s looking over your head at something far off in the distance. You turn to see what he’s looking at, and you realize that he’s looking at a goat, all the way over in the goat yard, and is completely transfixed by it,” said Dewan. “That’s when you really get how accurate their vision is, and how much focus and concentration they are capable of.”
For Dewan, running the Zoo and its more than 1,300 animals is not just the pinnacle of a successful career. It’s a labor of love. He clearly loves animals – and not just the six dogs, two cats, and several birds that he and his wife keep as pets. For him, the mission of conservation, for both species and their habitat, is profound – an opportunity to create a personal legacy as well as an institutional one.
“Ultimately, it is our relationship with animals, and with nature, that defines us human beings,” Dewan said. “It is so critical that we get how important the educational and conservation components of our mission really are.”
Under his leadership, working in partnership with organizations like the Natural Lands Trust, the Zoo has developed innovative programs that engage and teach visitors about the needs of wild animals all over the world, and the impact that humans have had on their habitats.
Take the orangutan. Clearing the rainforests in favor of palm oil plantations is the principal cause of the species' decline. So the Zoo has taken on that industry – actively promoting the protection of orangutan habitats in Sumatra and Borneo and teaching visitors about the impact of using palm oil, a type of edible vegetable oil that is derived from the palm fruit, grown on the African oil palm tree. It’s also giving visitors a way to actually take action, registering their opinion with companies as well as legislators, and choosing products that don’t use the oil.
“Vik has made a difference because he's embraced change – he does not shy away from the idea of constantly transforming and growing, and doing something no one else in the world has tried,” said Molly Morrison, president of the Natural Lands Trust and a Zoo board member. “There is growing recognition that under Vik's leadership, the Zoo has emerged as a world-class institution and a leading innovator.”
Lucky for Philadelphia, Dewan’s next big move is likely to transform not just the Zoo, but its entire West Philadelphia neighborhood, Mantua: he wants a regional rail station at his front door.
“If, at the end of the day, we need to get 100 percent of our income from visitors, that means we need more people coming through our doors,” said Dewan. “How are we going to get more people to visit without having to build more parking garages and parking lots?”
Building new lots would be the easiest solution. But that’s doesn’t make it the best one. So instead, Dewan wants to revive the long-abandoned West Philadelphia regional rail stop at 34th Street, right where tracks cross Girard Avenue.
“A station would be very good for the Zoo, but it would also be wonderful for the neighborhood,” Dewan said. “If people here could use it to get to and from jobs, that could have a huge impact. And you’d get transit-oriented development associated with it, so you’d have new commerce flowing into a neighborhood which now has nothing.”
And the way he’s going about is vintage Dewan. Innovative, yes. But also tenacious and methodical.
First, he accepts that it’s a long game, and will take time, planning, and a lot of hard work.
Then he gets busy. He’s asking the right questions – how to do it, how to pay for it – and convening the right groups of people to work through the answers.
He's making progress.
The first milestone, which was getting a passenger rail study completed, has already been met. The Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission will do the study, and PennDOT has funded it. Next, there will be an engineering study needed, so they’re lining up SEPTA for that task.
“He’s been the catalyst for that whole conversation,” said Ajay Raju, executive chairman and CEO at Dilworth Paxson and a board member of the Zoo. “What I’m most impressed by is that Vik is always looking for the smartest people in the room. He is an aggregator of smart people, not just as a connector, but as a catalyst. He curates groups of people who work together so they can solve a common problem.”
A new rail station is indeed an ambitious goal, and it might well be a pipe dream. But anyone who’s worked with Dewan says that if anyone can do it, he can.
“If there was a Where’s Waldo? among a group of leaders, it would be him, he’s so different,” said Raju. “Here in Philadelphia there’s a great deference to how things have always been done. He’s able to lead without being constrained by that. He has an elastic imagination, a natural curiosity for how things are done, and he’s not handcuffed by the experiences of the past.”
Raju likes to tell a story about Dewan that he says is a telling example of what true leadership really looks like.
There are about 20 big days during the year that the Zoo routinely collects big sales at the gate, usually around a holiday, Raju said. It really needs those days to be big in order to meet its financial target. But no one can control the weather, and if it happened to rain on too many of those days during any given year, all the budget projections would be off.
So Dewan asked his insurance company to cover that risk.
“Turns out there wasn’t any such kind of coverage available, because nobody had ever thought of it, or asked for it,” Raju said. “So Vik pulls in a handful of really smart people – some lawyers, his insurance guy – and asks them to create a product that he could buy.”
They had to work hard to figure it out, but eventually they did. Now the Zoo has the insurance it needs, and the insurance company has a new product to sell.
“See, it wasn’t Vik who had the skills or the knowledge to develop that product,” Raju said. “But he was able to select and reach out to the right group of really smart people, and inspire them to come up with something they didn’t even know they could do.
“To me, that’s the essence of leadership.”
“Our biggest problem is that someday he’s going to step down as head of the zoo – and someone’s going to have replace him, “ Calvert said. “I feel sorry for that person.”