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Scarcely on the job for five months, Roger Germann, The Florida Aquarium’s new President and CEO, is still getting to know the operation, the staff and the community. But he is certain about one thing: “We’re not making little plans here,” Germann said of The Florida Aquarium in a recent interview. “We want to be a big player, not just on the local and state level, but on the national and international stage.”
The “little plans” is a reference to fabled urban architect Daniel Burnham’s quote that Germann has taken as a personal mantra: “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood ...”
Burnham’s work remains influential more than a century after he designed central Chicago, Germann’s hometown. The Florida Aquarium, Germann believes, also can achieve an enduring impact.
He thinks The Florida Aquarium, already a successful attraction highly regarded for its conservation work, is well positioned to become an “iconic” institution that is a leader in developing environmental solutions.
“I was attracted to this job, because Thom (Stork, the late former Aquarium President & CEO) had done such a great job, and it has a solid foundation and is moving in the right direction,” Germann said.
Germann likes that the Aquarium is at the hub of dynamic urban growth. On one side is Jeff Vinik’s Water Street Tampa project, which will include the University of South Florida’s medical school. On the other is land Port Tampa Bay plans to develop.
He appreciates the opportunities the ventures will provide to further increase attendance and contributions, always a priority for a nonprofit attraction.
But the 48-year-old is equally excited about The Florida Aquarium’s potential for becoming a powerful advocate for protecting the ocean. He is impressed by what The Aquarium already has accomplished, including a partnership with the National Aquarium of Cuba to study coral reefs, and likes that its “conservation effort has a tight focus” on sharks, sea turtles and corals.
Germann plans to continue that focus, though he added, “The organization needs to be nimble enough that if another critical issue comes along, we can add it to our portfolio.”
Germann worked 16 years at the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago and helped it evolve from popular attraction to an influential institution. During his time at Shedd, its annual attendance grew to two million visitors a year, and its operating budget increased from $27 million to $58 million. That financial success enabled Shedd to expand its environmental mission.
As an example, Germann pointed to Shedd’s leadership on restoring the Great Lakes, which account for close to 90 percent of the surface fresh water in North America. Lake policies affect a number of conflicting interests, including the shipping industry, agriculture, municipalities, environmentalists and outdoors enthusiasts. Resource decisions could be hotly debated, as is often the case in Florida.
Germann said the Shedd Aquarium became a clearinghouse for compiling Great Lakes research and translating it into language citizens could understand. The public’s regard for the Shedd Aquarium minimized the bitter partisanship that accompanies so many issues and helped produce practical solutions.
“We worked to educate everyone in the eight states and two Canadian provinces around the Great Lakes about what needed to be done to save the lakes,” he said. “It became one of the largest bipartisan restoration efforts.”
Germann would like to see The Florida Aquarium assume such a role in addressing Florida’s environmental challenges.
President Barack Obama appointed Germann to the federal Great Lakes Advisory Board, where he made recommendations to the Environmental Protection Agency chief. He also wrote a blog on the Great Lakes’ progress for the Huffington Post.
Germann, with a University of Illinois communications degree, began his career as a television writer and producer (his credits include the TV series “America’s Funniest People”). He later moved into politics, serving as a press secretary for the Illinois State Treasurer and other elected officials. His experience taught him “about branding and the importance of communication.”
It was something of a fluke that he joined Shedd. His sister, a teacher, had asked him to help arrange a class tour of the aquarium. When he called a friend at Shedd, Germann learned of a public relations job opening.
“I liked the job I had, but there was a lot of travel, and I thought this sounded interesting,” Germann explained, even though he had never been particularly interested in wildlife.
That quickly changed.
“Once I started learning about animal care and understanding the conservation mission, I drank the Kool-Aid, so to speak. It became my passion.”
While he first handled marketing and public relations, Germann ultimately worked on all facets of the Shedd Aquarium’s operation, from overseeing conservation programs to negotiating for animals.
He and wife, Laura Zaremba, a health care consultant, have two children: Ike, 7, and Anica, 6.
The couple recently bought a home in South Tampa so he would be close to work. He knows his Aquarium responsibilities will require attention night and day, but family time also is important: “I’m hoping I can find time to still manage my son in Little League.”
In Chicago, Germann and his wife were heavily involved in charitable and civic causes, including aiding the homeless and improving schools. He plans to similarly be involved in Tampa.
However, Germann’s first task is making an impact at The Florida Aquarium: “I want everyone to know that this is a world-class aquarium, that we have the best and most talented people, the most enthusiastic volunteers, and that together we are going to do big things.”