NAME: Doug Porter
POSITION: Executive Director, Chehaw Park
FAMILY: Married to Karen, with four adult children: Ian, Mike, Jason and Steve
EDUCATION: Undergraduate: University of South Florida, Tampa; Masters: University of Georgia, Athens
Three years into attending Mercer University on a sports scholarship, Doug Porter visited Zoo Atlanta while killing time before the start of an Atlanta Braves baseball game.
It was a life-changing experience. It was at the Atlanta zoo he found his calling and today, at 62, Porter is executive director of Chehaw Park.
Porter loves his job, he says, but could settle easily into writing fiction. He’s working on his second epic with his first one, “The Menagerie,” published and available on Amazon.com. Recently, Porter spoke with reporter Jim West about his life with the animals and how he sees the future.
Q. What was your first job?
A. It was unpaid. My dad was a plasterer, so I spent many a Saturday morning mixing cement for my dad. My first paying job was a lawnmowing service I had with my cousin. We went all over St. Petersburg, Fla., mowing yards. I was about 15 years old and my cousin, Hank, was 16. Since he could drive and I couldn’t, I had to supply the trailer to haul our equipment in.
Q. What was the first thing you spent money on when you received your first-ever paycheck?
A. The trailer. My mom and dad bought the trailer so we could do the job, and I had to pay them back. I remember the first money I made was buying this trailer so we could keep working.
Q. What’s the single most effective technique you’ve found over the past few years for keeping employees motivated?
A. I think treating people with dignity and respect goes a long way. Of course, we need to make a living, so I think that people need to feel they’re getting a fair shake from their employers — a fair wage and decent benefits.
Q. What led you to your current position? Why did you want to operate your own business?
A. That’s a bit of a long story. I was in college at Mercer University studying biology and really having no idea about what I wanted to do. We went on a weekend outing up to Atlanta to a Braves baseball game and happened to go to the zoo just to kill some time. I’d never been to a zoo before, and that’s what piqued my interest to want to go into this type of business. I transferred to the University of South Florida, got a job at Busch Gardens and here I am.
Q. Do you have a role model or mentor in your career?
A. I can’t really point to one single person. What I’ve tried to do in my career is to pick out the habits of certain people I admired and emulate those. I’ve picked up a lot of things from a lot of different people.
Q. What is the biggest lesson you as a business leader learned from the recent recession?
A. I think that you really have to plan carefully for the worst-case scenario. Kind of like we do in our personal lives. We have to plan for the downturns and be ready to weather the storms when they come up.
Q. If you could turn the clock back on one aspect of technology – examples email, automated phone systems, cellphones, PDAs, etc. – what would you most like to see go away?
A. I think the automated phone systems. I don’t like them. We don’t use them here at Chehaw. I think a live person needs to answer the phone. Then, if a person needs information, that can go to automation.
Q. What is your favorite work-related gadget?
A. I don’t know if you’d call it a gadget, but I think the work-related thing that’s had the biggest impact on us at the park is the ability to go to the computer or to your smart-phone and get up-to-date weather reports. We do that a lot out here, and it’s critical to our operation.
Q. What is your favorite tradition?
A. We have a couple of traditions in my family. My wife and I host two parties a year. One is on New Year’s Day, and we have a nice dinner with friends and neighbors. We do a similar thing on Kentucky Derby day. She’s from Louisville, so we do a Derby party every year.
Q. What was the last book you read? Do you have things you read daily or regularly?
A. I read a variety of things. I like mysteries and political thrillers, and then I’ll switch back and forth to nonfiction. Right now I’m reading a book called “Da Vinci’s Ghost.” It’s about how (Leonardo) Da Vinci came up with the drawing we know as the Vitruvian Man. It’s the one with the human figure with the arms outstretched and the circle and a square. There’s an interesting story there, and that’s what this book is about.
Q. I’m up and going by? And what is your morning routine?
A. Most mornings it’s 6 a.m. If I’m in a writing mode — I do some writing — I get up at 5 a.m. I try to get up before my wife and have some coffee and a light breakfast and either read the paper or get into some writing. I’ve written a book, published earlier this year. My first book was zoo-related, about the history of a zoo and it’s founding in about 1900 to present day.
Q. What famous person would you like to meet? Why?
A. Theodore Roosevelt. I really admire him as a naturalist, which is really my field, and as a president. He was one of the few people I know of that received the Congressional Medal of Honor for wartime activities and the Nobel Peace Prize. I think he would have been a fascinating person to get to talk to.
Q. Favorite hobbies or activity outside work?
A. Writing. I do quite a bit of writing, and I like to work with my hands. I have a workshop at home and I do things like make furniture. I do wood carvings. All the carvings in this office are carvings that I’ve done. I spend a lot of time working in the yard with my wife.
Q. If you could take back one business decision you made in your career, what would it be?
A. In 2001 I decided to leave the zoo business and start my own business. I was going to be a home inspector. That was about one month prior to the disaster on 9/11. That business venture didn’t work out too well for me, so we lived in South Carolina and had a home inspection business for a couple of years then decided to get back into running parks and zoos. You just never know what’s going to happen.
Q. Best thing about your job?
A. The ability to get outside and be in the park and be in nature and interact with people. Most of the time when people come out here, they’re having a good time and it’s just really pleasant to be able to get outside.
Q. Worst thing about your job?
A. Struggling with the financial aspects of running a big park like this. Dealing with equipment breakdowns, legal issues and financial matters. That’s the biggest challenge.
Q. The most beneficial course I took in school was?
A. When I was working on my master’s in adult education we took a course on geriatrics and aging and I learned that, contrary to what I believed, we decline as we get older. Recent research is showing that we do not decline. Our brains continue to grow brain cells, and we can continue to function at a high level. I’m real encouraged by that.
Q. What would be your dream job if you were able to pick a position outside your current career path?
A. I suppose I’d just be a full-time writer. I like writing, but I can’t make a living at it right now.
Q. Finish this thought: On the first anniversary of my retirement, I see myself …
A. Working somewhere but in a much less stressful job.
Q. What is the one trait a strong business leader cannot afford to be without?
A. Integrity. You can’t compromise honesty, and treating people fairly is the most important thing that we can hang on to.
Q. Crystal ball time: What’s your call on when the economic recovery for our area will be in full swing?
A. I would say in two to three years. I’ve seen some great progress here recently with the city manager’s new five-year plan he’s working on, and I know the County Commission is working on next years’ budget already. The Economic Development Commission has been out here at Chehaw doing some visioning. I think there are a lot people working on the future of this area.
Q. What kind of music might I find on your list of most played on your iPod?
A. I have a pretty eclectic taste in music. I listen to a lot of country and some bluegrass, Irish and Celtic. The one song that probably best typifies my taste is Phillip Phillips’ song “Home.” I listen to that a lot on my iPod.
Q. What do you think is the biggest change Albany will see in the next 10 years?
A. I think the change we need to see is for Albany to move to a more global view of doing business and not be so focused on local issues. We live in a global economy, and we need to pay more attention to what’s going on in the world around us.
Q. What was the best vacation you’ve ever taken?
A. In 1986, my wife and I went to Africa. It was our first trip to Africa, and it was the year that Halley’s Comet appeared. We remember sitting out under the African sky at night and seeing Halley’s Comet overhead with lions and cape buffalo in the dark outside our cabin. It was a remarkable experience — a lifetime experience.
Q. What are the biggest changes you have seen in your specific line of business over the past few years?
A. Obviously technology has revolutionized our business, like every other business with computerized inventories and all that sort of thing, but the real interesting thing in our line of business, in zookeeping, is that when I got into it we didn’t know anything about animal behavior, management and training — what could be done with animals. For example, animals like our rhinos here at the park: If we wanted to do anything with a rhino, we had to shoot it with a huge tranquilizer dart and try to get it to go to sleep so we could do something to it. Now our zookeepers are so talented they’ve trained these animals with treats and clickers to come over and voluntarily submit to all sorts of things. We can take blood from our rhinos if we need a blood sample, and he’ll stand there voluntarily and let us do that. I just find that remarkable.