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Expo 2012 Keynote: Ocean Park CEO Tom Mehrmann Says, ‘Be Disruptive’

by Jeremy Schoolfield

When Tom Mehrmann was hired as CEO of Ocean Park Hong Kong in 2004, the marine and amusement park was drawing about 3 million visitors per year. This year, that figure is 7.1 million. How did he help effect such dramatic change, all while absorbing the impact of Hong Kong Disneyland’s debut in 2005?

His answer to that question is involved and multifaceted, but as he told a capacity crowd of more than 500 Monday afternoon, it boils down to this: “Not-for-profit is a tax status, not a business plan.”

“I wanted to make sure the competition is irrelevant, based on what we do and how we do it,” Mehrmann said. So he and his team embarked on a six-year, eight-phase, US$700 million improvement plan that dramatically expanded and overhauled the entire park. Now that the plan is complete, Mehrmann reflected on some of the keys to its success.

Empowering Employees
A major factor in Ocean Park’s success, Mehrmann said, came via a renewed commitment to its employees. When he took the job, Mehrmann said he started writing a personal note to each employee who received a compliment card. In 2004, he had to write 25 notes; this year, he’ll write about 1,200.

“It delivers a powerful impact to the employees—to know that someone recognizes the good work they’re doing,” he said. “Recognize your people; catch them doing things right. As leaders, too often we catch people doing things wrong.”

The reason those compliments are exponentially higher, Mehrmann said, is Ocean Park has empowered its employees to handle guest complaints right away, without requiring supervisor approval or shunting the problem directly to Guest Relations. Instead, employees are trained in handling difficult or upset guests; a new program Ocean Park recently rolled out arms employees with gift cards to distribute as a last resort of mollification. “It’s amazing how judicious the employees are with these cards,” Mehrmann said. “They treat them as if it’s their own money, and they don’t issue them unless they haven’t been able to solve the problem with anything else.”

‘Be Disruptive’
Mehrmann said he wants his team “to be disruptive by nature”; not in a damaging way, of course, but rather he wants people “to take a look at the status quo and ask, ‘Why do we do that?’”

It’s this disruptive thinking that helped Ocean Park develop a series of special events that are now mainstays of the park’s schedule, such as “Animal Month,” a Chinese New Year celebration, and especially a massively successful Halloween event that this year drew 726,000 visitors in October.

“Halloween has become a real force in Hong Kong and Asia,” Mehrmann said. “Events really are where it’s at—they keep the park fresh and constantly renewed, and if [you’re] doing them on the right financial basis you’re always going to be making money off of them.” 

10 Attributes Mehrmann Looks for in an Employee

1.   Curiosity

2.   Sense of responsibility

3.   Sense of humor

4.   Passion

5.   Courage of conviction

6.   Initiative

7.   Creativity/innovation

8.   Sense of urgency

9.   Persistence

10. Confidence