Winning theme from mop to the top
Many chief executives start from the bottom but few like Tom Mehrmann can literally claim to have started from ground level. The boss of Ocean Park Hong Kong launched his career with a broom and mop at a Californian theme park before climbing to the very top of the management ladder.
The 52-year old father-of-two has spent his entire 36-year corporate career in the theme parks sector, firstly in California and then in Europe.
He was hired in 2004 to turn around the financially struggling Ocean Park as it prepared to face competitive pressure following the opening of Disneyland in 2005.
Under his leadership, the Aberdeen park has added new attractions and seasonal events, boosting visitor numbers from 3 million in 2004 to 7 million last year. This year, more new attractions and animals, such as penguins, will be added to celebrate Ocean Park's 35th anniversary. Hotels will be added in coming years.
Along the way, Mehrmann has helped Ocean Park beat Disneyland Hong Kong in terms of attendance, a matter of particular pride for him. When he was a high school student, he applied for a part-time job at Disneyland in California but was rejected because he was too young and his hair was considered too long.
Spurned by Disney, he applied to a family-run theme park called Knott's Berry Farm and was hired to clean the floor, toilets and other areas of the park. He continued part-time at the entertainment and educational theme park until he went to college to obtain a bachelor's degree in psychology.
The rest is history. After college, he stayed on at Knott's Berry Farm, working in various position until he became vice-president of park operations and entertainment in 1996.
When Knott's Berry Farm changed ownership, he joined the Six Flags theme park company in 1998 to take charge of its Marine World Africa in Northern California - now Six Flags Discovery Kingdom. Two years later, he moved to Madrid as head of Warner Brothers Movie World when the park was taken over by Six Flags.
In 2004, Mehrmann came to Hong Kong as chief executive of Ocean Park, where he now leads a team of 2,000 full-time and 2,000 part-time staff taking care of 10,000 fish and 11,000 birds, as well as reptiles and animals including pandas, sea lions and dolphins.
Why have you spent the past 36 years in the theme park industry?
When I was a teenager and worked at a lower level, I found it enjoyable working with other people my age. The friendship and social connection made me like the job. Ocean Park also has many young people who enjoy the friendship and family environment. When I reached management level, I also found it to be a good career with diverse opportunities. It is a dynamic business. You have 20,000 guests a day and you have 20,000 opportunities to make them happy. It needs a whole team of people from cleaners, designers, marketing, sales, public relations and other professionals to work together.
Overall, what is the key to running a successful theme park?
Basically, you have to keep things in perspective and control the things that are controllable. There are some things you cannot control, such as the weather. For those things you can control, you always must prepare for the worst.
Is managing Ocean Park different from the other parks you have managed in the US and Europe?
Ocean Park is unique as it combines education, attractions and entertainment all together while not being for profit. All the other theme parks I worked at were for profit.
Even though we do not seek profit, we still need to have new attractions and entertainment to attract more visitors.
When I first joined Ocean Park in 2004, it had financial difficulties as it was just after Sars and the Asian financial crisis. The theme park was close to using up its cash reserve. To cope with the tough times, we had to take risks by investing in new attractions. A prime example was the decision to invest HK$7 million to establish the jelly fish spectator showroom in 2006. We attracted 350,000 more visitors in the month the jelly fish attraction opened than the same month a year earlier.
How do you recruit staff who are suitable to work in the theme park industry? What qualities do they need?
We had 800 staff when I first joined Ocean Park. We now have over 2,000 full-time staff. In addition, we have another 2,000 part-timers during periods such as Halloween
We hire the right people to do the right job. Some people always have a smile on their face and are good at serving people. Those who do not want to serve other people can work behind the scenes handling accounting or other operational jobs. The range of job opportunities at a theme park is huge as we need a wide range of people with different skill sets, from animal trainers and plant-carers to sweepers, cleaners, dish washers and cooks.
Despite the fact we are doing different jobs, we have the same targets and same goals. We maintain team spirit by promoting internally if possible, and when we can achieve our goals we reward our staff with things like free coupons for food, ice-cream or soft drinks. We had targeted to have 7 million visitors a year by 2015 but we achieved that goal last year, three years ahead of schedule. It is important to set a goal to let all your staff work to achieve it and share the success together.
Also, I think it is important to catch people who are doing things right. Whenever a guest compliment letter praises a staff member, I will write a thank you note to that employee and give them a coupon for a small gift. It is easy to catch people doing things wrong. It is more difficult and important to catch and to award your people for doing things right.
What are the growing prospects for the theme park business?
The growing opportunities are huge. In 2004, there were 15 Asian theme parks with world-class facilities. Last year, there were 35 and one of the major growth areas is China.
The development of the theme park business in China and Asia is huge. The expansion of the middle class, the economic growth and increased discretionary income and time have all encouraged people to go to theme parks. This is no different from the experience in the US and Europe. Theme parks have the value of combining education and entertainment. Ocean Park is 35 years old this year. We have people who visited Ocean Park when they were children and they now bring their own children there. We have generations of visitors.
Many analysts compare Ocean Park and Disneyland. Do you consider it is your major rival and how do you compete with Disneyland?
When Disneyland opened in California in 1955, the owner of Knott's Family theme park believed that Disneyland would end their business. But it turned out the date of the Disneyland opening was the best thing for it. The family-run theme park continues to operate today.
The same thing happened in Hong Kong. When Disneyland opened in September 2005, many thought it was the end of Ocean Park. But, in fact, we had the best September monthly visit in the same month Disneyland opened. This showed us we could have two theme parks in the same city as long as they were complementary. We learned from each other.
Before Disneyland opened, 3 million people each year visited Ocean Park. Last year, Ocean Park had 7 million visitors and Disneyland 5.9 million visitors. As such, the total visitors to Hong Kong theme parks last year was 13 million against only 3 million in 2004.
The number of metres of track on The Dragon at Ocean Park, Hong Kong's largest roller coaster which includes three hair-raising giant loops