New Columbus Zoo leader Tom Schmid seeks to regain community's trust
In his more than 20 years leading the Texas State Aquarium, Tom Schmid grew accustomed to calls from recruiters about open positions in the somewhat small and specialized zoo and aquarium industry.
And each time, he told them the same thing: “I love what I do, I love the community I live in in South Texas,” said Schmid, who has the been the president and CEO of the aquarium in Corpus Christi since 1999.
But when Schmid, 58, received a call about the opportunity to lead the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, he knew his usual answer would no longer suffice.
“It was something that I had never expected, and I was immediately drawn to it,” Schmid told The Dispatch.
A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity
After his first conversation about the zoo’s open president and CEO position, Schmid recalled telling his wife, Kim, “We’re all in. This is extraordinary,” he said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to lead a world-class zoological operation.”
That opportunity will begin in earnest for Schmid on Dec. 6, after the Columbus Zoo board officially named him the organization’s next president and CEO on Tuesday following a national search.
In his new president and CEO position in Columbus, Schmid will be paid a starting base salary $425,000 annually, with additional benefits and the opportunity for a bonus, Zoo board chairman Keith Shumate said. In Schmid's previous role in Texas, he received nearly $325,000 as a base salary, according to that facility's most recent 990 filings with the IRS.
Former zoo CEO Tom Stalf received about $269,000 in base salary, with total compensation totaling more than $488,000, according to the zoo's most recent tax filings.
Schmid has already started reviewing all he can about his new job before he begins — “the history of the zoo, the culture of the zoo, how it fits in the community,” he said.
That learning will continue once he gets here.
“I want to understand from the community stakeholders what the zoo means to them, and how we can work together to move it forward,” Schmid said.
Top of mind for Schmid and the board members who tapped him for the role is restoring the community’s trust in the zoo and its leadership. Schmid’s predecessor resigned in March after an investigation by The Dispatch detailed his personal use of zoo resources.
Forensic audits have since revealed improper spending and questionable business practices by former president and CEO Tom Stalf and former chief financial officer Greg Bell, resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars in zoo losses. Investigations and reviews by the Ohio Attorney General and Ohio Auditor of State remain pending.
“Job one is to regain the trust of the community, the central Ohio community, the organization, the zoo and aquarium community, making sure that once again everyone fully trusts what we're doing, that we're doing the right thing, and we're doing the right thing all the time,” Schmid said.
Shumate said Schmid is regarded as a smart and ethical leader and a “great listener.”
“We know we’ve got some challenges coming out of all of this,” Shumate said. “And I think Tom is the right person to lead this zoo to accomplish, and to meet those challenges.”
Schmid grew up in South Florida, and has more than 34 years of experience in zoological attractions. He worked for the Sea World organization for about six years early on in his career. From there, he spent several years working for the National Maritime Center in Norfolk, Virginia, before he was recruited to the Texas State Aquarium to be their director of animal husbandry and interpretation. Within a couple of years, he was promoted to chief operating officer, and in 1999, took over as president and CEO.
Under his leadership, the Texas State Aquarium grew to one of the largest aquariums in North America, advanced wildlife conservation work, and raised nearly $100 million to support the aquarium’s mission, according to the Columbus Zoo's news release announcing Schmid's hiring.
From top aquarium to renowned zoo
As Schmid readies to lead the Columbus Zoo, he said the line between zoos and aquariums has blurred. The Texas State Aquarium is more than just fish, he said, noting that his current organization displays terrestrial animals, marine mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and a significant bird collection.
Like the Columbus Zoo, the Texas State Aquarium is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Schmid previously served on the board of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, including as its chair. He is currently on the executive committee of the Coastal America Learning Center Network and a board member of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
Perhaps the biggest adjustment in coming to the Columbus Zoo will be the sheer scale of the organization and its operations, Schmid said, from the large zoo itself to The Wilds and its conservation center near Cumberland, Ohio, and everything in between, including the Zoombezi Bay water park and the Safari Golf Club.
“The challenge for me is to really understand how all these pieces fit together to deliver on our wildlife conservation mission,” he said.
That broad scope of the Columbus Zoo was also the most compelling aspect for Schmid as he considered the position.
"That's what attracted me the most, I think, was the sort of the portfolio of programming that they have, the scale of the operation ... all these entities in alignment moving together to essentially accomplish one thing, and that’s working for animals,” Schmid said.
About 255 full-time and 2,000 seasonal Columbus Zoo employees will fall under Schmid’s purview as president and CEO. In his role at the Texas State Aquarium, Schmid oversaw about 185 full-time employees prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and somewhere between 250 and 300 total employees during peak seasons, he said.
Schmid will relieve former longtime zoo director Jerry Borin, who came out of retirement in late March to lead the zoo on an interim basis while the search for a new director was underway.
Shumate said while there were many strong candidates, Schmid truly impressed the search committee.
"Tom, really, was the best candidate of all of them," Shumate said.
Back at the institution that he's led for years, Texas State Aquarium Board chairman Charlie Zahn thanked Schmid for his passion and commitment that helped grow the aquarium.
"With his leadership, the Texas State Aquarium has successfully navigated through achievements and the most unprecedented challenges,” Zahn said in a prepared statement. “The organization’s strength during hurricanes and a pandemic resulted in a strong performance, with momentum continuing to grow. We are grateful for the steady leadership and experience that Tom has brought to the organization.”
Schmid holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from Stetson University and a master’s degree in biological sciences from the University of Central Florida. He and his wife, Kim, have two adult children, Max and Alexandra.