Q&A with Mark Williams, Business Operations Manager, Oregon Zoo
What is your primary charge as Business Operations Manager for the Oregon Zoo?
The primary focus of my team is a superb guest experience. My job is to make sure that when the guests get here, their whole experience is excellent. I manage the teams that keep the grounds clean, operate the concession stands, ensure good food quality is good, everything that touches the guest experience.
The other part of my job focusing on the guest experience is that we can afford to do it. Part of that is looking at ways to increase the number of zoo visitors each year. Bringing in special exhibits is one way that we can accomplish that, to get people coming back because there are new things to see.
Why is this career move important to you, from a personal standpoint?
I consider myself a very creative person. I’ve always wanted to be in a position where I have the authority and power to implement fun and creative ideas, to get them going to see if they’d even work. In this job, fresh ideas are encouraged and cultivated. We’re lucky to have very bright and knowledgeable folks who come up with great ideas. We examine new ways of doing things, do the research to determine if the plan is feasible, and then implement them. It’s an exciting process.
What was your career path leading up to your current post?
I started at the Oregon Convention Center back in 1990. I took an entry-level job, primarily responsible for room setup and housekeeping. I was promoted to a lead position for the small teams that would set up the meeting rooms for various events. Then, I was promoted to setup supervisor. In that role, I got to work a lot closely with the event coordinators and event managers. I thought to myself, “I want to do that. That looks like fun!”
When a job in event management opened up, I applied for the position. I think I applied for an opening two or three times, and on was my third try, I was offered a job. I had no experience in event coordination, but I was really eager to learn. Management took a chance with me, and gave me a shot at the job. That’s how I became an event manager.
After doing that for a few years, my boss at that time decided that she wanted to do something more important – to spend time with her family, raising her son. I thought long and hard about applying for the event services director job, and I realized that I really wanted to do it. I was in charge of that department for about 11 years, serving as event services up until July 30 (2010), which was the exact same day when I started at the OCC 20 years ago.
Moving up the corporate ladder at the Oregon Convention Center, what were some of the most important lessons you have learned?
Our business is driven by our customers. Without customers, none of us would be here. That goes for many organizations – public, private or nonprofits. One of the most important things I have learned is the importance of customer service. You have to understand the needs of your clients or customers. You need to make sure you deliver everything you promise, and always try to exceed your customers’ expectations. Whenever possible, you want them to go out the door knowing that they just had a really good experience, and you want them to talk to other people about it.
It’s true what they say: sometimes it’s not what you know, but who you know that’s important. Sometimes it’s a little bit of both, but establishing relationships is extremely important in the business world. It’s also important to remember that we can always learn something from others. Everyone has a lesson to teach you, no matter how young or old they are.
What are some of your key priorities in your current role?
Whenever I can, I’m working on helping improve efficiencies in our operations. That will involve a process of implementing new technology, innovation, and staff training.
One of our other challenges is figuring out how to get people to come to the zoo without utilizing the parking lot. We don’t have a large lot, and it fills up quickly. On a typical summer day when we welcome about 10,000 guests, we have to shuttle quite a few people. There’s a growing demand to expand that service, and even considering adding remote lots. We’re working on encouraging people to take public transportation to get to the zoo.
What are some of the similarities and differences between your current and previous posts?
Both organizations have customers, but the big difference is that people come to zoo to have fun, while they go to the convention center to work. Here at the zoo, mine are usually 8 and under, and bring their parents along. People come here to have fun, to be educated, and to be entertained.
At the convention center, most people come to buy or shop at consumer shows, but in most cases, they’re on business attending a conference or a meeting. I used to deal mostly with businesses.
If you were king for a day, what would you do differently?
I’d build a giant parking lot that would hold 7,000 cars. Also, the zoo would be free to everyone. It’s a great place to come and visit. If you haven’t been to the zoo, you’re missing out.
How would you describe your management style?
People are important to me. My staff and their lives outside of work are important to me. My expectations are that people come in and give me 95 to 110 percent when they are here. I can’t ask for anything more, but I want you to have fun doing your job. If you’re working somewhere and you’re not having fun, you will not be successful. If you truly enjoy your work, you will do a good job. That’s one thing I’m truly excited about being here – these guys have fun, and they love what they do.
What do you like most about what you do?
I’m really enjoying learning new things. I remember coming to the zoo when I was a kid, and I brought my family here a few times, and that’s all I really knew about the zoo. Now, I get to see the zoo from behind the scenes, and learn about the business of running the zoo. Being at the convention center as long as I have, I pretty much knew the operations inside and out. It’s exciting to learn about new stuff. I feel like a kid in a new store – this place is so big, and there’s so much to learn. I can see that excitement lasting a long time.
Colors of Influence || Winter 2011