Tom Mehrmann: Ocean Park has a licence to thrill

Ocean Park's successful chief executive started as a cleaner in theme parks and shows that he still has the welfare of workers at heart

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 March, 2013, 4:44am

New animals, fresh rides and more visitors - in recent years Ocean Park has been on an upwards trajectory. And with a water world and two hotels on the way its success shows no signs of slowing.

Who would believe that just a decade ago it was on the verge of closure? Ask the man who got into the driver's seat when the theme park was failing to thrill.

Chief executive Tom Mehrmann has seen the park at its worst, with just HK$100 million free cash to hand - enough to run it for two to three months.

When he walked into the job in 2004, the park had just 3.7 million visitors - 50 per cent less than visitor numbers last year.

It was just recovering from a string of calamities dating back several years. In the late 1990s its water park was closed because of poor attendance, then visitor numbers were hit further by the Asian financial tsunami which almost wiped out its balance sheet.

To top that, the Sars epidemic struck the region in 2003.

It was soon after this that Mehrmann quit his post as vice-president of a theme park in Spain to join Ocean Park in 2004, just as Hong Kong's economy was starting to recover.

The 53-year-old, who began his career cleaning toilets in an American theme park in high school, was always an optimist.

He first visited Ocean Park in 2003, when the Sars epidemic was at its peak.

"As soon as I came here, I fell in love with it. I saw nothing but potential," said Mehrmann who has spent two-thirds of his life in the theme park industry. "I didn't look at it as a challenge. I saw it as an opportunity."

For Mehrmann, the park's selling points were its location by the South China Sea, its range of products, and customer loyalty - people who came as kids were now bringing their children.

After his arrival, the park's fortunes reversed, with record breaking visitor numbers seen every period, except for the financial year of 2008-09, when the global credit crisis hit.

Mainland tourists have helped keep the park busy, today accounting for about half the number of visitors.

Although some guests have complained about the behaviour of tourists from across the border, Mehrmann welcomes them to his park.

"I have seen mainland visitors becoming more sophisticated, worldly guests," he said.

For Mehrmann, it took time to adapt to cultural differences between Hong Kong and the mainland. He remembers being bewildered by messages at the park entrance, reading "no spitting" or "don't jump queues or you will be thrown out".

"I said, 'Wow, these are amazing welcoming messages.' None of that was positive," he remembers. The signs went soon after.

Mehrmann believes in praising the work of his staff. Last year, he wrote more than 1,000 thank you letters to employees who were praised by guests who had visited the park.

"It's easy to walk around and spot what's wrong. The hardest thing about being a leader is to go and find what's right and acknowledge it," he said.

One time as he was walking around the park, he saw a group of staff leaving work. One of the ladies gestured at him. He thought she had a complaint.

"It turned out she wanted to show me that she … had laminated [her thank you letter] and carried it with her everywhere.

"That was a clear indicator to me that [the notes do] have an impact, it means something."

Though his days as a theme park worker are long gone, Mehrmann still keeps tabs on what life is like for his staff.

For example, on his second day of work at the park in 2004, he asked his secretary to show him to the staff canteen. "I'm part of the park, I'm part of the employee base, I should eat where the employees eat," he said.

Approaching the canteen, he heard chatter and laughter inside. But when he opened the door, complete silence fell.

"It was a real moment for me - do I walk back out or do I walk in? I walked in. I ordered char siu fan [barbecued pork rice] as it was the only thing I knew how to say. I sat down and ate and the noise level slowly picked up," he said.

On that visit, Mehrmann saw the canteen had the park's broken chairs and tables. "My feeling was, if it wasn't good enough for the guests, it's not good enough for the staff," he said.

So they changed the canteen furniture, painted the walls and put up pictures. He still goes to one of the two staff canteens once a week.

"The philosophy is, if you take care of your employees, they'll take care of the guests," he said.

Mehrmann grew up in the park business. In 1977, he took a job as a sweeper at Knott's Berry Farm in California. He spent 21 years there, eventually becoming vice-president in 1996. Two years later, he joined Six Flags Marine World in San Francisco as vice-president and general manager.

He accepted the same positions at Warner Brothers Movie World in Madrid, Spain, when Six Flags took it over in 2000.

Having lived through the ups and downs of the "business of fun" Mehrmann has learned to always see the bright side.

"Look at our penguins. They don't know if it's a bad time. They don't know if there's a guest there or not. They wouldn't change what they do every day.

"Don't let the negative overwhelm you. Find the positive in it. Allow yourself to find hope."


Tom Mehrmann

Current role: Chief executive of Ocean Park

Age: 53

1977: Sweeper, Knott's Berry Farm, California, US
1996: Vice-president, Knott's Berry Farm, US
1998: Vice-president and general manager, Six Flags Marine World, San Francisco, US
2000: Vice-president and general manager, Warner Brothers Movie World, Madrid, Spain
2004-present: Chief executive, Ocean Park, Hong Kong