CEO says zoo set to open Big Cat Crossing trail

One of the Philadelphia Zoo's big cats.
One of the Philadelphia Zoo's big cats.
Posted: May 06, 2014

Vikram H. Dewan remembers watching Storm, the red-capped mangabey, make his tentative way onto the first of the Philadelphia Zoo's overhead wire mesh trail systems, inaugurated in July 2011.

The monkey "very gingerly sort of walked on it because it was an unfamiliar feeling," recalled Dewan, 59, the zoological society's chief executive. "That was a very powerful moment. But more powerful was the next day, when he came and bounced his way through it and there was a sense of exuberance."

Dewan imagines the same thing will happen this week when the zoo's lions, tigers, and leopards test their new Big Cat Crossing trail system, which opens to the public on Saturday.

But, he said, "the wonderful thing about having a living collection is the total unpredictability of it. This is not an art museum where we put up the art and you know it's going to look exactly like that every day."

Question: Do you have a favorite animal?

Answer: Although we're not supposed to, we have our favorites. Tony (the rhinoceros) is one of my favorites. He's one of our most charismatic animals. He has an incredible personality.

Q: Really? How so?

A: He is engaging. See the way he moves his ears. They have great hearing and very poor eyesight. He begins to recognize people's voices.

Q: Does he recognize yours?

A: I'm sure he does. You can see him react.

Q: Speaking of different animals, you used to lead a bank. Now you lead a zoo. Same? Different?

A: There are a lot more similarities than people realize.

Q: Like what?

A: Governance, operating models. Paying attention to people. So much of what constitutes the success of a bank is service. Here all those things matter and we have the additional opportunity of a great mission.

Q: What about different?

A: I didn't feel that, at the outset, the financial realities were understood across the organization. People didn't understand that the mission depends on having a sustainable financial model. For better or for worse, if you bring in a banker as a CEO, everyone [will] understand basic finance - what they do and how it affects our numbers.

Q: Describe the big cat trail.

A: We're the only zoo in the world that has come up with this concept of having animals come out of their exhibit areas and move through a system of passageways. As you move around the zoo, the zoo moves around you.

Q: Other advantages?

A: It's a really interesting business model, as well. Building a trail system is not as expensive as building whole exhibits. So we can give people an interesting experience and not have to spend tens of millions of dollars to do it.

Q: You are very short, barely 5 feet tall. Does being short matter when you are a CEO?

A: We're a society that makes assumptions about people. I was the captain of my football team and I was the shortest guy on the team. Almost everything in my life, including the woman I married and whom I love, is taller than me. Height has never been an issue.

Q: Favorite zoo moment?

A: The first snowfall of the year, seeing the tigers. There is an incredible sense with the contrast of the snow and the bright orange of their color. And since we have Siberian tigers, they run out in the snow. There is a real joy.


VIKRAM H. DEWAN

Title: Chief executive officer, president, Zoological Society of Philadelphia, since 2006.

Home: Overbrook, Philadelphia.

Family: Wife, Jami; children, Adam, 34; Maya Schaaf, 32; Tara Czarnecki, 25.

At home: Nine dogs, mostly cocker spaniels, and several cats.

Diplomas: Cornell University, government and finance; University of Pennsylvania, master's in business administration.

On the side: Loves soccer. Attended every World Cup since 1990.

Favorite team:

Gli Azzurri, Italy

Weekends: One day at the zoo. One morning at Starbucks.

Drink: Espresso Macchiato.


PHILADELPHIA ZOO

Animals: 1,300

Employees: 400

Visitors: 1.2 million

Opening day: July 1, 1874

2012 revenues: $37.8 million (year ending Feb. 28, 2013)


MORE ONLINE

Vikram Dewan: From lending money to raising money.

www.inquirer.com/jobbing


Interview questions and answers have been edited for space.

jvonbergen@phillynews.com

215-854-2769

@JaneVonBergen

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