TAMPA — For nearly three decades, Jim Dean rose steadily through the executive ranks of the amusement park giant now known as SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment. He worked for Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis and London, the Sesame Street-themed attraction Sesame Place in Pennsylvania and once oversaw food and merchandising operations for all of the company's 10 theme parks.
Then, in 2010, he was given the keys to Tampa's iconic attraction, Busch Gardens.
Dean, 55, is the president of Busch Gardens and Adventure Island in Tampa. He was also recently named chairman of Tampa Bay & Co., the Hillsborough County tourism agency that enters the new year facing questions about its leadership and accountability.
The agency is a $10 million nonprofit that gets 80 percent of its budget from the county's tourist development bed tax. It's job is to promote tourism and book events for the publicly funded Tampa Convention Center. There are more than three dozen directors on the board, most from the private sector.
Dean's first job as the new chairman is to find a new chief executive officer. Kelly Miller abruptly resigned from the post in October, 11 months after he was hired. But when Miller was hired in 2011, the agency did not publicly disclose the list of finalists beforehand or even when the board would vote on its top choice. That's because Tampa Bay & Co., despite being publicly funded, has long believed that it is not subject to Florida's public records law.
The process may not be any more open this time around. Dean discussed with the Tampa Bay Times what he's looking for in a new CEO, why the final candidates may not be publicly disclosed and what it's like to work at a theme park.
What are you looking for in a new CEO for Tampa Bay & Co.?
We're looking for a leader. We had a lot of discussions about that. I had some discussion with (Tampa Port Authority Chairman William) "Hoe" Brown about the port's search (for a new CEO). More than anything, we're looking for leadership. That's a hard thing to quantify and outline. But I think when we see it, we'll know it. Hoe said when they did their search, when they found the right guy, they knew it.
How public will the search process be this time around?
I suspect it will be up to the desire of the candidates. People who have jobs, they want some confidentiality in regard to their desire to leave their current job. We'll respect that unless we're given an indication from the candidates that they're okay acknowledging their interest in our position.
The cost of doing this search is out of our membership funds. We won't be using public funds to conduct our search to find the right candidate for the job.
In November, board members approached the mayor of Tampa's chief of staff, Santiago Corrada, about applying for the job of CEO before the search process had even formally begun. Has anyone else been approached about the job, and are you okay with board members seeking out candidates?
I think if you know somebody who was qualified and you asked them if they had an interest in a great position and they're available, whether you're a board member or if you just live in the Tampa Bay area, I think it'd be great for you to approach them and ask them if they have any interest in running one of the best destinations in the world.
You were named new chairman the day before Miller resigned. What was your reaction to that news?
Welcome to the chair. Was it something I said or did? (Dean was joking.)
What do you enjoy the most about working at Busch Gardens?
I think I have the best job in our city. We have almost 5,000 employees that we call team members, and it's a real family atmosphere here. It's about making memories for our guests every day. It's a great way to make a living, honestly. We have a world-class roller coaster and possibly one of the best animal collections in the world, and with our shows, we think we're one of the best theme parks in the world.
That feeling of opening this place to guests from all over the world is pretty special.
Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3404.