Jeff Sailer, executive director of the Toledo Zoo, admits that he first became a zoo director “by default.”
“I’m a biologist,” Sailer told a breakfast crowd at the May 13 Fridays at Findlay gathering at UF. “I started out on the academic side of things. “
During the first part of his career, circumstances required Sailer to assume more responsibilities. Moving from Miami, Florida to New York City, he served as director of city zoos, overseeing the operations of three zoos and serving as facility director for the Central Park Zoo.
Arriving in Toledo four years ago, he has helped boost that zoo’s reputation and initiated interactive activities such as a zip line above the African exhibit and a giraffe feeding platform. He is all about making the zoo and the city of Toledo a “destination.”
Recently returned from two weeks in Australia and Singapore, Sailer told the audience that there are more than 250 accredited zoos and aquariums in the U.S. and that “no two are comparable.” He saw a big change in culture and management in going from zoos in New York to the Toledo Zoo. It’s his belief that even nonprofit organizations must operate as a business. “There’s no mission without margin,” he quipped.
Operating as a business has obviously served the Toledo Zoo well. Named first in Best U.S. Zoos: Readers’ Choice Awards by USA Today, the zoo also experienced its best year ever in 2015 where attendance and revenue are concerned. More than 1.3 million people crossed the footbridge across Toledo’s Anthony Wayne Trail to enter the zoo’s gates last year. A large percentage of the crowds visited from outside the Toledo community and out of state.
“We’ve calculated that the zoo had a $90 million impact on the Toledo community in 2014,” Sailer continued. “We have 1,000 employees. That’s a very visible presence in northwest Ohio.
According to Sailer, the Toledo Zoo is one of the few zoos in the country where visitors can still view a hippopotamus (in an underwater viewing area) and polar bears. The zoo is home to more than 9,000 animals from 800 different species.
Serving on the University of Findlay’s Board of Counselors, Sailer has shared his vision and business expertise with the board of trustees and members of the president’s cabinet. In looking back on his journey during the past four years, he emphasized that a cultural change has taken place at the zoo.
“And changing a culture, you know, takes a while,” he said before leaving the podium.
In closing, Katherine Fell, Ph.D., UF president, reminded the group that the University is hosting a day at the Toledo Zoo on Sunday, Sept. 25. All students, families, alumni and friends of the University are welcome. For more information, contact the Office of Alumni, Parents and Friends at 419-434-4516.
Fridays at Findlay debuted in April 2016 and is an executive speaker series that addresses current issues in business, education, leadership and life. On hiatus for the summer, Fridays at Findlay will hold its first event of the academic year in September 2016.