Sometimes, the push to make a meaningful change in life comes from an enemy. In Raymond King’s case, the enemy was cancer, which drove him to a new career.
King, 46, spent 22 years working for SunTrust before switching jobs, he said, “from the circus of banking to the zoo.” He became CEO of Zoo Atlanta two years ago, overseeing dramatic changes there, as well as in his own life. He discusses both issues, as well as the zoo’s firmer financial footing.
Q: Would you please talk about your Atlanta roots?
A: I’m one of the few people who’ve never lived anywhere else. I went to Christ the King, St. Pius and Georgia Tech. I joined SunTrust straight out of college. Up until two years ago, I used to tell people that I was the only person I knew who had never lived anywhere but Atlanta and never worked anywhere but one company.
I’m an SOB — son of a banker. My father went to Georgia Tech, as well. When I went to Tech, I studied business. And then I went straight into corporate banking with what’s now SunTrust.
Q: From what you just said, you don’t seem big on embracing change. How did you go from banking to the zoo?
A: The big jump really was eight years before I came to the zoo, when I went into community affairs at the bank. A lot of people midway through their careers want to move from success to significance. At 36, I made that switch.
The non-profit world needs help, and will give young people leadership experience well before a corporation will. My job in community affairs was to connect our younger and senior leaders at the bank with the community. It was in our best interests at the bank and it was in the community’s best interest.
I had a tremendous passion for Atlanta, and I’ve always believed that you follow your passions. I also didn’t think the bank was doing as much as we should. Essentially, I ran my own bank within SunTrust, giving away millions of dollars in grants to a variety of non-profits. I was able to build an incredible network in this town. I am far from being the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I am blessed to know an incredible number of people.
Q: How did that play into your career change? What do you know about animals?
A: In 2010, the zoo was looking for three things for its next leader — someone with business skills, non-profit leadership skills and community connectivity. The zoo needed to embark on aggressive fundraising at that time. From 2000 to 2009, the zoo was essentially in the red.
I had a relationship with the chairman of the board of the zoo, and he asked me if I wanted to run it. If the zoo picked the best person in any one of the three criteria, I would lose out. But they needed a mixture of the three, which I had.
They said they did not need anyone who knows about zoology. There’s a great team here that knows how to run the zoo. I have to drive the strategy, raise the profile of the zoo and raise the money.
I was not an animal person at that time, other than having a dog. But I knew I couldn’t keep my passion for my job at the bank for another 20 years.
Q: How did cancer impact your decision?
A: My cancer was an unbelievably positive experience. I had lymphoma in 2009, and that was part of what drove me to take this job. I don’t know that I would have taken it had the cancer not happened. Cancer makes you realize how fragile life is. You are much more anxious to seize opportunities.
Because of my health issues, my relationship with my 10-year-old daughter had a gap in it. I wasn’t able to do physical things like dads do, like playing soccer in the backyard. But she had a love of animals that made me a hero on day one when I took this job.
It was the personal side of what I had experienced with cancer that made me give up a phenominal 22-year career at Atlanta’s hometown bank. For that reason, I’m thankful for my cancer. It makes you much more appreciative of things. You live life for that day, not knowing what’s around the corner.
Q: Would you please bring us up to date on the zoo’s financial situation and where you’re trying to steer it?
A: Revenue was up last year to $16.4 million, from $14.7 million in 2010. The budget surplus rose to $604,000, from $24,000. And attendance was up to 805,000, from 673,000.
It’s important to give visitors a new reason to continue to come back. A big initiative has been to make it much more hands on. For example, we added “Wild Encounters.” It used to be you had to be a VIP to go behind the scenes to feed an animal. That is something people love. We added a feature where people can feed pandas or elephants or a Komodo dragon. It’s a premium add-on to the ticket and helps to bring people closer to the animals.
But there are challenges. Reptiles and amphibians are one of our key strengths, but operating in a building way past its useful life. We’ve raised $17 million out of the $20 million we need to replace the building. We’ll complete the capital campaign in late summer or early fall, and break ground then.
My job is to keep raising money and not be sitting in this office. I tell my staff: if you see my car in my parking place too often, you need to kick me in the rear end.
Each week, Sunday Business Editor Henry Unger has a candid conversation, called “5 Questions for the Boss,” with a top executive in Georgia. Some remarks are edited for length and style.