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Listen to Episode 116

Josh spent Earth Day interviewing Tony James, Director of Facilities at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, to talk about what it’s like operating a zoo during a pandemic. He shares tips for keeping staff roles flexible, promoting open communication and more. 

Show Notes:

See the video of Josh and Tony's interview here.

Show Script:

Josh Peach  
Welcome to the Operate Intelligently Podcast, the podcast for all things operations.

Hello Operate Intelligently listeners. This is Joshua Peach, and I am really happy to be here on Earth Day with a really special guest and Dude client, the Cincinnati Zoo Tony James is joining us. First welcome Tony to the Operate Intelligently podcast.

Tony James  
Thanks for having me, Josh.

Josh Peach  
Our pleasure. And you know, one of the things that I've noticed over the last six weeks I could tell you that I never went to a virtual cam or to a YouTube channel of a zoo. I think every single day with my two and 13 year old, we are visiting the Cincinnati Zoo virtually. If it's not my my friend Fiona the hippopotamus, it's the penguin parade or it might be Rico, the porcupine, there's Fiona and her birthday cake. Or Rico, the porcupine eating peanut butter from a spoon. You guys are still business as usual minus the business part because you've got nobody there. Walk me through what, tell us about the Cincinnati Zoo first of all, and also a little bit about you and how you got there, how long you've been there, and then we'll dig right into kind of what you've been dealing with for the last six plus weeks.

Tony James  
Yeah, so the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden is a pretty small urban zoo. We're about 70 acres total. We do about 1.7 million visitors on the typical year. Obviously this year that number is going to change or maybe not time will tell. You know, we have been around, we're almost at 150 years. One of the oldest zoos in North America. I have had the privilege of being here for almost 20 years. Started right out of college in our horticulture department, made my way up through the ranks and now the director of facilities managing our capital projects and our maintenance team.

Josh Peach  
Very cool and 20 years, wow, that's a that's a long run in the same place. You don't see that a lot anymore. So glad that they got a good one over there. So you've been there for 20 years, you've been through, well, I mean, you were probably came in right around Y2K. 911, you were there for, you were there for SARS, bird flu, swine flu, the recession, you know, countless things that we've been talking about. How does this pandemic measure up to all of the other things in your 20-year career?

Tony James  
No comparison. This is is by far one of the most impactful events I've ever seen happen. In the 20 years I've been here I've never seen our zoo shut down, and we shut down mid-March. And we're still shut down. It's crazy. It's taken a big toll on our zoo. But what I also think it has done is brought our zoo together, our employees. It's made you realize what actually makes your zoo tick and who you actually need to depend on and who you need to value and it all comes back to your employees, right? It's been a struggle for me because of the whole, essential or non-essential. And in my role, there's about four guys at my tier for our facilities team in different roles, project management, stuff like that. You started to wonder if you were actually essential and needed to be here. And you come to find out that you probably can do what you need to do from home. But that was a hard spot to be put it in because the guys and gals that work for me, asking them to be here and asking them to be essential and not knowing, right, first couple days, the first couple weeks, like, is everybody at the zoo gonna have COVID-19? Or is nobody at the zoo when I have COVID-19. Not knowing, it was a tough spot to be in. And it really made me appreciate what our team does for the zoo and what they do to to put people like me in roles that I'm in. Without a great team underneath us that is essential, it wouldn't be as easy without them.

Josh Peach  
Yeah, well, I mean, that's the, you know, we talked about the frontline folks that are that are absolute heroes right now. And you're seeing all these things happen out with parades of fire trucks and police cars, they just had at the hospital here. But part of that frontline team are those M&O and custodial staffs that are making sure that everything's re-sanitized, deep cleaned, that all the equipments running properly for proper airflow and everything else. And you guys have an added layer of complexity, because you don't have just humans, you have animals that have all different diverse living environments that have to be taken care of and treated. I mean, you've got a manatee area. I'm not showing my fiance that, we actually swim with them in Mexico and we adopted one named Flash, so we're a manatee loving household. But I mean you guys have a little bit of everything you know, you guys had a mountain of work before all this right? Just keeping all that same order. How was kind of the remodeling of everything that you do like what you said, you know, your team's out there trying to keep everybody safe, making sure nobody gets COVID. You know, how did you guys? What happened in that, like first week, two weeks? How did you transition?

Tony James  
So in order just to give you a little insight in our facilities department that includes capital construction, so our major projects, maintenance, security and safety, horticulture, and then housekeeping. And so those first couple days, hours, weeks, I mean, there for a while, it was almost changing by the hour here in Cincinnati. And adjusting to that, it being super fluid and just trying to get the staff to be super fluid, but at the same time, you know, there were a bunch of questions from staff. Am I going to keep my job? Am I going to lose my job? You know, questions like that emotions like that, trying to deal with that plus come up with a plan. What we did here at the zoo, which I think was about good plan, is we split our teams up into multiple teams at the time to try and keep a widespread infection rate. If we so like in our maintenance staff, for instance, we have about 30. Folks, we split them up into two groups, two teams of 15, basically. And they were rotating shifts. So they would work four 10s one week and three 10s. The next week would be Team A, Team B would do the exact opposite. Just so we didn't have a widespread pandemic breakout. Then other things we did you know, horticulture is a big part for us. The grass doesn't stop growing, the flowers don't stop growing. April is one of our biggest horticulture months for our team here at the zoo. It's tunes and blooms every Thursday, which is a free concert here at the zoo. So it's a really showy time that draws a ton of crowd but also produces a lot of work. And so we were not getting the crowd, but we were still having the work. So we took folks from our security team, we took folks from our housekeeping team. Because obviously without crowds, our housekeeping team and our security workload kind of dropped down a little bit because they're not cleaning bathrooms every day. They're not having to clean the buildings every day, because the 10,000 people a day are not in there. So we split them up and they actually jumped on to some of our horticulture jobs or some of our other animal care jobs. That's kind of zoo-wide. We have people in our admissions department literally being animal keepers, cleaning up Fiona poop everyday right now to try and fill in. Because not only did our department the facilities department split up, our animal department also did the same thing. And it just being very fluid. We've been lucky enough that at our zoo, we have not had to furlough or lay off any full time employees, but we are asking them to participate in roles that they probably never would have thought they would participate in. Where we have people that are typically cleaning and sanitizing our bathrooms and picking up garbage a couple times a day, they're now out planting or digging up tulip bulbs and planting annuals, or cutting grass and string trimming grass. So the zoo, and it goes back to my point about it's all about your employees, right? Like they're being super fluid. They're doing what they're asked to do, but not only what they're asked to do, what they want to do, and they want to be part of the zoo still. And they know that things are changing rapidly. And being flexible is highly important. But I think the biggest thing for us was splitting our teams up when it first started. So that you know I we have, like you mentioned manatee pools, we have hippo pools, we have elephant pools, we have polar bear pools, we have penguin pools. Pools is a big thing for us. And our we call them our LSS staff, which is our life support systems staff. We have about seven or eight folks on that team. And if we lost that entire team to this virus for two weeks, our team would struggle to run and operate those systems correctly. So that was part of the idea of splitting them up was keeping people here that were essential and knew how to run our systems.

Josh Peach  
Yeah and that's a great idea. But one of the things that you're talking about that runs through my head is did you experience any organizational challenges or anything with that new rollout? I mean, was there a ramp up time that it took to get used to, was there communication changes? Or did you have any other challenges in that first couple weeks that were, you know?

Tony James  
It was rough at first because you know, we have guys, the zoo. As I told you, I've been here 20 years. I manage folks have been here longer than that. The zoo is good place to work. And that's why we have a lot of tenure here at the zoo. But it was a little rough. I was off site, talking to my boss talking to my two direct reports to kind of run the field day to day stuff and trying to come up with different scenarios, different teams and who should be on which team. We even looked into going into a three day or a three split team, even into a four split team. We ran through a bunch of scenarios. And finally after, I think we shut down the zoo on a Sunday, and we rolled out this split team on a was either a Wednesday or Thursday to be exact, but I think we shut down on the 15th that that was a Sunday. And I think we've rolled this out on the 18th. Basically, I came in with the staff that we we were all here, we met in the morning at 7am. And I said look, we're in a time we've never seen, we're going to ask things of you that we've never been asked. But we're going to be very open and honest with everything. And we have been. And we rolled it out. We sent our half our team packing that day, kept the other half and had some papers, a lot of emails went out, there was a ton of confusion. So it was a lot of phone calls, a lot of text messages. But just open communication and making sure our management staff was on the same page, which we were. Thanks to cell phones, we could merge calls and I'm probably on at least one to two, threeway calls with my two day to day guys that are running the show. But yeah, it rolled out quick. We thought it was a good plan. We admitted that we weren't positive if it was when we were asking everybody to be flexible. So far, the plans worked, you know. Knock on wood, it's worked. And it seems to be good. No terrible griping about it yet.

Josh Peach  
With all that's going on in the world, we've decided to cancel our upcoming conference, Dude University. But we're excited to be introducing our first ever virtual Dude University on May 5th and 6th 2020. Make sure you get on the list for this free two day mix of online sessions including product training, best practice sessions, industry connections, and a live client panel. Register for free online today at university.dudesolutions.com

It's interesting. So I've had a number of guests, specifically just on COVID and the idea on it is a couple fold, you know, obviously, you know, for people to be leveraging you know, we're leveraging Zoom right now and different technologies we have that were really, in a lot of cases uncomfortable. I couldn't do a Fiona background like two weeks ago. Now I'm blasting out backgrounds left and right. And I don't even have a real green screen yet. So. But one of the things is, as I'm listening to you, and as I've listened to others, and as it's just a consistent messages, there is no set protocol for what you guys are dealing with and what you've had to deal with. Are there any best practices? Or are there any things that you uncover other than the split team thing, which I absolutely love and it's one of the first times that I've heard someone doing it. We work with a number of zoos, but just in general, was there something that you guys did before this that you're like, wow, this is something so I'll give an example. I see Zoom meetings happening a lot more frequently than six weeks ago. I can see this as being a new normal for a lot of meetings because the big reason why people weren't into it was being uncomfortable. Chris Phillips from Mount Vernon, Washington was telling me about how they're doing inspections via Skype. And they're having the actual citizen that owns a house, if it's a water heater installed, they're Skyping and showing the camera, they never did that before. Now they're doing that. That could be a cost savings as well as efficiency gain. Are you guys uncovering anything like that?

Tony James  
Nothing that's ringing out in my head. Obviously, just like you're saying these Zoom meetings, Go To meetings, Skype calls. I couldn't tell you the amount of them I've been on honestly, I'm tired of seeing my own face on a computer screen. But yeah, I do agree with yeah, I think that is going to be somewhat of the new norm, right? Like, people are not going to want to gather 10 people in a room here until probably there's a vaccination. And so getting acquainted to that. I still couldn't do a background on my screen if you asked me. From the field guys, service, field, guys and gals service you know, some of the protocols we've had to change. We have a pretty extensive water lab here, where we do testing of all our water, we've really had to think through how we test the water and how we're interacting, whether it's with animals or other employees, whether they're animal keepers or just other facilities employees. So I think we'll see some changes in our protocol there, in our testing and water sampling side of the business. I'm not sure that we're as fancy as doing Skype inspections. You know, most of our guys have the tablets and we're working with FacilitiesDude off of our tablets. You know, the one thing that has been a little tough for us is we've had to limit the amount of staff that we have in animal buildings. So most of our preventive maintenance work has somewhat been put on hold because we don't want our facility staff in those animal buildings, whether it's for the animal health or for the animal keeper health. So most of that's been put on hold. We're only doing emergency work if an emergency comes up. But yeah, we haven't had a ton of things other than meetings like this. And some of our water lab protocol change.

Josh Peach  
Yeah, I was talking to one of our solutions consultants, Mike Bremmer, who's just a bright, bright dude, all of my team is really bright with thinking about, you know, what should people be doing and thinking about and we were talking about that and it was one of those moments where I had like this mental block and he just said, you know, clients should be looking at you know, how do we not just postpone or put off PM work that you would typically do, but manage it through it because it was done because of COVID. It wasn't because you didn't have the staff. It wasn't because you didn't have the time or the filters or whatever it It was solely because of safety of COVID so that at least you're capturing and recording and if something does happen and it's a cost you can say hey look there was a safety issue health issue that we couldn't get to. Made all the sense in the world for reporting when all of this stuff is actually done behind us and we can get back to whatever our new normal looks like. You know that that poses my my next kind of thought here. We can't you know, I live in Boston, Massachusetts and so yesterday the governor comes on at noon and he says, Hey, schools closed till September so 131 days for us and before school comes back in. So now we have a known and it's not even a known right because we don't know if come August that this, we're hopeful but we don't we don't know for certain, but at least we have a finish line in mind. What do, you know, how are you guys looking at that? Like do you have any like it's the zoos obviously not going to open tomorrow. It's most likely not going to open for the foreseeable next number, I would say a bare minimum number of weeks, possibly a month or so if I mean, are schools closed in Ohio for the year?

Tony James  
Yeah. So same with us. Governor Diwan came on I think it was yesterday might have been the day before. He said schools were closed for the rest of the year, and he's going to evaluate what happens in the fall. I'm just like you, I'm at home with two kids. And my daughter's great. My son is like, I want to go back to school, you're a terrible teacher, dad. Which is great. But yeah, so right now we're closed down all schools. Here in Ohio we are also on a lockdown until May one and the way that the governor is talking, he's going to start rolling out a lifted restrictions plan on May one, not everything will open back up with like the flip of a switch. The rollout is a phased plan. You know, he's actually saying things like athletic games, sports games, concerts, he's not sure when we'll be able to do those things, again, large gatherings. What we're doing and how that's affecting us here at the zoo is we're digging deep into that right now. And we've been doing it for about the past two weeks. And we're looking into a phased rollout kind of like he's talking about, do we roll out a plan? And like you said, we don't know if it's weeks, we're hoping it's only weeks and not months. We're not putting a date on there. But we're looking into a phased rollout where maybe we just open up and none of our buildings are opened up or some of our buildings, and then maybe we have another phase where we start to open a little more of the park. And then we're looking at, you know, with ticketing, how do we do that? Do we do a time ticketing? We're not sure how are going to do all that. But definitely kind of taking the same approach and guidance that our governors give us and realizing that it's not just going to be, hey, this Saturday, the zoos open. It's going to be a multi-step approach and knowing that maybe if we get through to the phases, and there's a new spike of COVID outbreak, we may have to shut back down as much as we don't want to. But knowing that and being ready to do those phases, where it does get a little tricky for us. I mentioned earlier, you know, we didn't have to lay off any full time staff, we do rely heavily on seasonal staff. And when we shut down we did have to let all of our seasonal staff go. So ramping up our opening also coincides with hiring seasonal staff, and you don't want to hire them and then have an outbreak and have to lay them off a month later. Like it's just not right to the person. So thinking through that. There's a lot of things and even like thinking through of our restaurants, like obviously, our restaurant here at the zoo, we would treat the same way any restaurant outside of here would be right. We might have a pickup option. But the restaurant may not be open for months. So yeah, we're definitely taking our direction and kinda trying to use the same approach that our governor is. So May one, you know, the next couple weeks, what are we? We're on August 22. So yeah, the next couple of weeks he comes on it sounds like just like you guys out there in Boston. He comes on every day, two o'clock, gives new restrictions, any updates. So taking that approach and kind of following his lead, and, again, just like when we shut down with our employees, knowing that it was a very fluid situation, opening back up is going to be the same way.

Josh Peach  
Yeah, well, I mean, I was just, I just did some some fast, fuzzy math. Trying to just put into perspective, you know, how many people might visit the zoo on any given day. And if you just take the 1.7 million divided by 365 you're at about 5,000 and I'm sure there's more than 5,000 on days of the of the bands and the penguin parades and everything else. So that's a large number of people. So that you know, you have to put that all into effect. I mean, we have grocery stores that are, you know, 50 and 75,000 square feet, not 70 acres, but large stores that are limiting to 15 people in the store at any given point in time.

Tony James  
We're digging heavy into that also trying to, you know, look at our square footage of public space and how do we need to limit and and I think we will wind up limiting the amount of folks that are allowed in the zoo every day. Just like your grocery stores, your hardware stores, all that are doing. So yeah, we're digging into that truck, figuring out our square footage, number of folks will let in. You know, for us you're writing an average day is about 5,000. A busy day for us is about 10,000 people. But now think about that, you know, that's spread out over eight hours. You know, when we open a5 nine and we close at five, you do 10,000 people in a day, but realistically, it's combined we don't get a lot of late afternoon traffic. We get a lot of early morning traffic. And people stay you know, we're also talking about will people's amount of time that they stay here, be longer their duration here because they've been cooped up for the past month. Yeah, I know me and my family when when May first hits, you know, one of the first things we wanting to do is go to a park somewhere. And my kids want to play on a playground so bad, right? So typically we play for half an hour. Well, they convince me to stay there for two hours. Probably won't be hard convincing, right?

Josh Peach  
Oh, yeah. No, it's it's, you know, I've been I came home this is 42 days will be tomorrow. Six weeks will be tomorrow that I've been home. The longest stretch I've ever been home I typically travel, you know, about 180 days a year and see a lot of people. My fiance and our two kids, they've left the house our house once since March 16, I've left the house four or five times and it's all for curbside pickup stuff. I haven't actually been, I mean, I consider myself very fortunate in the in the fact that we can, you know, we have things delivered and we have, you know, people that drop things off for us and things and that we don't go out and don't have to go out. But yeah, when this thing goes I mean we'll have been together and in the house for 10 to 12 weeks before we can go someplace. So you can bet you can bet we're going to wherever we go, it's going to be a while. I mean just a restaurant. I think we're just going to something as simple as going to a restaurant, you're going to most likely and that's, you have to think about are they going to be sitting there eating food longer? You know something that's interesting out of all this, people are figuring out how to enjoy each other's company a little bit better, and actually talk and do and communicate better. So this is, you know, some good byproducts of this. You know, one of the things that really strikes me, Tony, you know, obviously one of the things that we're trying to do with this COVID is obviously give people with best practices and talk about, you know, the technology side of things. But more importantly than that, you've shown this in this podcast, as you've educated us, first of all on the zoo, which I think is fascinating and amazing. And thank you for the work that you do. One of the thing that things that's come out and resonated is a positive mental mindset that it seems that you and your team have. It also seems like there's a very loyal team, you talk about people that have been there longer, you know, what are some of the things that you could see, what are some of the attributes? What are some of the things that you guys do? What's the best practice? What's a Cincinnati Zoo, inside line, special sauce to keep people smiling through all of this working hard? And what I caught early on, which is a start up company mindset, and you're 150 years old, is that when the going gets tough, everybody picks up and they row the oars together. And it means if you're in accounts payable, you might be put, you know, planting tulip bulbs or doing all these things or just talking about, what is it?

Tony James  
I think it's, it comes down from the top right, we have a great director in Thane Maynard and our CEO, Dave Janicki. And then my boss, Mark Fisher, and other folks in our top leadership. They don't just preach the words, they actually walk the walk, right, and then they talk to talk. And I know that if I had an issue right now I could call Thane Maynard and say Thane, man, I'm just struggling, and he would do whatever he needed to do to make it right. And that's the trickle down effect, right? Like at my role and my status, I know that there's nobody more important than the people below me. And I really think that they feel that way. Like I go to them and I talked to them. I have a crew of 32 folks, and I'm making sure that I text them every two weeks just to say, Hey, how are you doing? Are you still holding up? You need anything? And I'll bet you 75% of those responses are holding up good. Appreciate the job. If there's anything you need me to do, let me know. And I really think it's because it starts from the top of an organization. You know, you can talk all you want, but when you're boots on the ground, when you're the guys walking around, and you see your boss's boss walking around and picking up paper off the ground and throwing into a garbage can. It's just a small example of the way that the zoo is and the way that they value their employees. You're not going to have an organization have folks be here 20 years, have folks be here 30, 40 years. I know a couple years. ago, we celebrated a guy's 50th anniversary of working at the zoo. You're not going to have folks in an organization like that unless they feel appreciated. And I really feel like that that's because it comes from the top. And I know that I speak for every management person here at the zoo. I really value my employees. Without them, I would I'd be lost, right? Like, if my employees aren't smarter than me at what they do, if they're not way better than me at their task, I'm not a good manager. If I'm the smartest guy in every task my team has, that's not good man. It starts from the boots on the ground, and knowing that those are the best people I got out there and portraying that to them and instilling that confidence in it. Giving them the tools that they need to be the best they can be in times like this, that's when they step up, and they make you realize what you do every day of the year valuing your employees, valuing what they do. When you do that every day of the year when you hit a crisis like this, they're the folks that you count on. And they're the folks that are stepping up here. And they're the folks that are keeping us running. And I don't know any other place that I've ever talked to employees that is run like the way we are. And it really does. I think it's because it comes from the top.

Josh Peach  
Wow, well, that is one heck of a way to to wrap this podcast up. Well said, Tony. I think that you know, kind of servant leadership mindset where you know, you're working for them is is one of the ways that I see a lot of successful teams getting through this, where their team knows that the leader is there, and they're listening and they're doing everything they can. And I appreciate you guys and the Dude appreciates everything that you guys are doing day in and day out. And please, please, absolutely stay safe, take care of your team, take care of yourself. Take care of those animals because I'm hoping that with this podcast maybe I get the inside line, so I come out there when this thing all wraps up and I can feed Rico the porcupine some peanut butter. 

Tony James  
Come on down, man.

Josh Peach  
So let's wrap this up. Before we go. I want to make sure that people know donations are very much appreciated and needed for all zoos right now. So if you're going on, and you're subscribing, you guys got like four or 5 million total subscribers, I was checking you out on all your social media platforms. You put out amazing content. The videos of Fiona, like I say, and Rico and the penguins and the manatees and the baby giraffe and all these. These are really really amazing videos. Educational. Our two year old, Chance absolutely loves them. But one of the things that we want to be doing is making sure that we're supporting because they're not getting the ticket dollars everyday. So if you're going on and checking these things out, even a couple bucks, just throw it their way so that they can keep these animals safe, healthy to staff and everybody put together. One of the things Tony said earlier is that the grass still grows and the flowers still still need to get put in. There's still a lot of work that's getting done day in and day out that you don't see so be sure it's cincinnatizoo.org that you want to go to. That cincinnatizoo.org and at the top there's a donate button. And if you just click on the general donation there's a whole bunch of things, a cup a bunch of choices but in the middle looks like a sea otter just says donate that's where you can make a donation and support this amazing facility of 150 years in business going through this tough time. Tony, you and your staff do stay safe. The Dude is beside you. If you need anything you know where to call. I'm glad Marissa was able to put this all together and I mean it when this things all done. I got cabin fever, I'm coming out I might need to bring the family to come see it all in person. 

Tony James  
Absolutely man. I appreciate the opportunity to be on here and I'm honored that Marissa would think about me. Again if you make it to Ohio, Cincinnati give me a call I'm sure we can figure out ways for you to feed a porcupine and hopefully talk about remembering COVID-19 and not still dealing with it.

Josh Peach  
A hundred percent, let's get this in the rearview mirror. All right, my friend. Well we'll wrap it up for an amazing episode of Operate Intelligently on Earth Day, learning about the zoo and Cincinnati. Have a great day, everyone. Thanks for listening to the Operate Intelligently Podcast produced by Dude Solutions. You can reach us by emailing dspodcast@dudesolutions.com or check us out on the web at dudesolutions.com

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

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