Power Players: Overseeing Atlanta’s Animal House

Zoo Atlanta President and CEO Raymond King gets bonus points for his sly pop cultural reference, paraphrasing lyrics from Paul Simon’s At the Zoo, in answer to a question about whether his workplace is, in fact, a zoo.

“It is a crazy place because, as you know, there’s always something happening at the zoo,” King says. His office is located just outside the zoo’s entrance, and the proximity is a great reminder of his mission.

In addition to overseeing Zoo Atlanta’s animals, 150 regular employees and facilities, King’s is the face of Zoo Atlanta. “My job is to tell our story broadly and loudly and to garner support of the organization from the community,” he says. That means King is frequently found off campus, speaking to civic groups, community leaders and philanthropic boards. “I tell my staff, if my car’s in the parking lot too often, you need to get after me and run me off,” King says. “My job isn’t to be here to open the gates.”

Becoming the head of Zoo Atlanta was hardly a natural career move for King, a former banker and a rare species himself – a native Atlantan. He attended local Catholic schools – Christ the King for elementary and St. Pius for high school – and stayed in Atlanta for college, graduating from Georgia Tech with a degree in management.

“I went straight to work at SunTrust and stayed there for 22 years,” he says. “I’ve told my friends that up until last June, when I moved to the zoo, I was the only person I knew who lived in one city their entire life and had one employer their entire career.”

King wasn’t sure he was the right person for the Zoo Atlanta position until he examined his interests and talents against the needs of the organization. “The business aspect [of the job] appealed to me,” he says.

“This was a way to bridge my deep love of the community and involvement in philanthropy and nonprofit administration with my interest in business.

“Occasionally people will say, ‘Do you miss being in the business world?’ and I say ‘I am in the business world. I run a $15-million-a-year business.’ It’s just got some added complexities, most specific of which is fund raising, that a typical business doesn’t have to run.”

Most daunting for King was the size of the organization. “I frankly had not led something of that size,” he says. “So the board had to take a leap of faith, as did I, that my skills were transferrable to that environment.”

Assessing his first year on the job, King believes it exceeded expectations, thanks to a hard-working, team approach.

“Previously, the institution had lost money on a consistent basis, which meant that they were unable to make any significant capital investments,” he says. “The philanthropic community isn’t going to invest in you when you’re losing money operationally.”

But despite a tottering economy and difficult weather, Zoo Atlanta broke even in 2010. They’ve begun capital fund raising, receiving the largest philanthropic gift in the zoo’s history, $5 million from the Joseph B. Whitehead Foundation, as well as a $1 million gift from Southern Company.

“We’re off to the races, raising money for a new amphibian and reptile complex,” he says. “The current one dates back to the 1960s and was the one thing that didn’t get renovated back in the mid-1980s.”

King is convinced that zoos are more relevant than ever. “Today the No. 1 mission of the organization is educating people on conservation issues and having an impact on wildlife,” he says. “There are more species under threat of extinction than ever before.”

Zoo Atlanta hosts more than 700,000 visitors annually. “We have the opportunity to educate people about the issues in the wild and how they can personally have an impact, in their buying behaviors or talking to elected officials.”

One perk of the job is the instant credibility he has with his 9-year-old daughter, Courtney. “She aspired to be a zookeeper, even before I looked at the job,” he says. “She has appointed herself vice president of the zoo. She could probably give a better tour of the place than me.”

Categories: Power Players