Manager’s Corner: Tommy Lee Brown, Saint Louis Zoo
Tommy Brown, retail manager and buyer for the Saint Louis Zoo, has a history steeped in retail. Beginning as a division manager for Dillard’s Department Stores, Brown began a career with Six Flags in St. Louis, as a retail designer before moving into the company’s corporate design role. Remaining with the company, Brown became the merchandise and attractions manager for Kentucky Kingdom. Spanning the scope of retail-related opportunities, Brown became the merchandise, games and attractions manager at Six Flags’ Texas location before pursuing his not-for-profit passion with the Saint Louis Zoo in October 2003. He is now the vice president of the Zoo & Aquarium Buyers Group (ZAG).
I’ve been in high-end retail, theme park retail and zoo retail, which is conservation retail,” Brown said. “Buyer, designer, retail operations, there’s nothing I can’t do.”
MM: What’s the greatest difference between your retail history and your current position?
TB: It was a little bit of an adjustment, but zoos are not for profit. Working for a zoo, you’re not working for a corporation that’s just trying to make money, you’re working for a zoo that is helping people, animals and the environment worldwide. You’re actually making a difference in the world. For example, I’m not just selling a tchotchke that someone takes home and it means nothing else.
What I’m doing is buying from indigenous people from Africa, Indonesia, parts of Asia, South America, so from all over the world. By doing that it helps them feed their families and protect the animals and environments around them.
It’s a win-win situation that we’re doing. And once we sell the product, it goes right back into the zoo to do the conservation efforts we’re doing here and around the world. It’s rewarding — it’s different from a theme park or department store … I’ve done everything you can do in retail.
MM: What are your biggest frustrations in retail?
TB: Trying to find the right quality staff person that fits the mix with your staff. Staff personalities, cultural background and diversity can be a large factor and sometimes personalities don’t fit in the real world. You have to be sure you’re educating people about diversity, about getting along. It’s so important that we get to know people from other cultures. If you understand the person, it’s hard to be angry at someone you actually know.
As retailers, you have to create a sense of community and the best work environment for everyone involved.
MM: How do you stay passionate about what you do?
TB: The first day I have to go to “work” is the last day I come in. Work shouldn’t be work. It should be pleasurable, something you enjoy doing. I would say that to all young people, too. Pick a career that you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.
I love what I do so much I volunteer at the museum of transportation — I designed a retail shop for them. I volunteer for one of our vendors, Stone Age Arts. I set up their showroom at Atlanta market so that more money can go back to their vendors. Giving back to the community is very important because the zoo, being not for profit, we have many volunteers. Since I have a talent in retail, why not share that talent?
It’s a wonderful little museum, it’s all about helping the community and that’s important — I can’t drive that home enough. You may have a career but you need to give back constantly.
So to be a good manager, you have to know how to be a good employee. It reminds me when I’m serving at the restaurant up the hill how to be a good employee. I think a lot of managers lose light of that — what it feels like to be a line employee.
MM: What are your goals for the upcoming year?
TB: My goal for this year is to increase our revenues here at the zoo. We’re already more than 20 percent over from last year (increase), so I want to keep that momentum going and make sure our staff is empowered to provide the best customer service as possible. You have to stress that your employees are empowered and can help make our guests happy.
MM: What is the best retail advice you can offer?
TB: Treat your customer like you would treat your grandmother. It’s simple; it’s not hard. When you’re waiting on your customer, think of your grandmother. Would you help her, would you make it easy for her to find items? The customer is the most important thing in all retail — without the customer, you don’t have a job. … It’s something I was told a long time ago when I was studying in Tokyo: treat your customer like you would treat your grandmother.
MM: If you had $10,000 to the store to spend to improve your store, what would you spend it on?
TB: I would put a new floor in. It’s a little old. That’s what we need more than anything right now. We have new fixtures, new lighting, but our carpet is 20 some years old (laughing).
MM: What’s one thing you wish someone would have shared with you before you got your start in retail?
TB: I wish someone in high school would have told me this is a career field; especially in the designing, buying and merchandising side. No counselors come in and say, “Hey, what about going into retail?” But there’s so much more and so many different layers to retail that no one talks about. There’s an art form to retail — visual merchandizing and design allows you to be expressive and create things and it stimulates your mind all the time.