zoo

As AICD members wound their way out of Sydney’s Taronga Zoo after a special VIVID event they came to a sudden standstill. A crowd also comprising public ticket holders for the animal themed light spectacular was thickening. I saw the zoo’s Chief Executive, Cameron Kerr, who’d talked at the AICD dinner about governance for a sustainable future, coming up the rear. “Is there another way out?” I asked him. “Congestion is building quickly.”

“I’ve never seen it like this,” Kerr said. He saw the path well ahead was empty and added, “Something must have halted everything.” Indeed, zoo staff had erected a barricade to make way for one wild brushtail possum. Within minutes we were back on our way towards the exit. I tell this anecdote because it exemplified something Kerr had talked about in business terms: A key stakeholder group is animals. It highlighted something else too — there were a lot of people at the zoo on a cold, wintry Friday night. Kerr had earlier talked about diversifying the zoo’s business to fund conservation projects. Teaming up with the lightshow festival had created an income stream worth a month of normal business. “It’s our thirteenth month,” Kerr happily called it.

Kerr has been The Executive Director and Chief Executive of Taronga since 2009. He’s been with the organisation for 18 years, following science and marketing stints within agricultural and pharmaceutical multinational companies. When he joined, the organisation faced challenges financially and socially. Society increasingly concerned about animal welfare, was questioning the existence of zoos.

As a manager, and as CE, Kerr has led the transformation of the business into a financially viable one with values to ensure it has social license to operate into the future, however the path to this healthier outlook wasn’t clear. Obstacles included: a two-year legal battle to bring in elephants from Thailand after a US-based activist fund mounted a campaign against the import; an elephant crushing its handler that nearly cost her life; and, terrorist attacks on New York and Bali and an outbreak of the deadly SARS virus last decade that cruelled international tourism and Taronga ticket sales.

Turning the tide

In his initial marketing role, Kerr saw the name changed to Taronga Conservation Society Australia from the Zoological Parks Board, to reflect its focus on conservation. In its centenary year in 2016, Taronga identified 10 endangered species, including the Australian Bilby and the Sumatran Tiger, and set itself a mission to help save them. Staff now have opportunities to work on projects spanning from Tasmania to the Republic of Congo.

Conservation is expensive and to succeed, zoo staff needed to appreciate that making money was as important as their love for animals. Kerr said the staff now understand our philosophy, “No margin, no mission.”

Operations have diversified so much that ticket sales to Taronga’s two zoos — 28 hectares on Sydney Harbour and 2,000 hectares 400 kilometers north west in Dubbo — have gone from being the major source of funds to over 40 per cent. (That’s some two million tickets, by the way.) Overnight zoo programs generating over $10 million a year. A 62-room Eco-Retreat is currently being built. A function venue is popular for conferences and weddings, and Taronga has a registered training organisation delivering accredited training programs in partnership with a number of providers including NSW Department of Education.

Meanwhile, the board has gone from being dominated by men of science to including women and a variety of skills. Kerr paid tribute to Board director Ms Nancy Fox FAICD chair of the Corporate Services, Audit and Risk Committee and her risk management leadership. He described how Taronga turned from being extremely risk averse, to attaching different tolerances to various activities within its four core areas — tourism, education, conservation, and science. For example, it has no tolerance for risk in animal welfare. “If we are not squeaky clean on animal welfare our social license to operate is gone,” said Kerr. The board had to accept risk to borrow money to build the Eco-Retreat.

Kerr refers to their risk matrix as a crucial governance tool for managing needs and expectations of various stakeholders — animals, customers, staff, government owner, donors, patrons, volunteers, and its Zoo friends membership of over 100,000.

The journey still has identifiable hurdles: namely, young millennials’ acceptance that the zoo is relevant. “Taronga has a big role to play in helping the community understand the breadth of our work. It’s something we have to work very hard at. But I do get a sense that we have the community’s support and that they want us to succeed and become a real powerhouse in wildlife conservation,” Kerr said.