When Florida Aquarium CEO Roger Germann wants to chill, he hangs with sharks

The head of Tampa’s non-profit, conservation-focused aquarium talks about riding the pandemic storm, flexible family hours, Tampa vs. Chicago sports, and what’s next for the aquarium.
CEO Roger Germann at the Florida Aquarium.
CEO Roger Germann at the Florida Aquarium. [ Courtesy of the Florida Aquarium ]
Published April 20, 2022

TAMPA — Roger Germann is not a man to sit still.

If he’s on the phone, he’s probably walking — past exhibits inside the Florida Aquarium where he is president and CEO, and sometimes out the doors and into the world. The person on the other end might ask what that noise is behind him — usually Tampa’s streetcar rumbling past between downtown and Ybor City.

“I love what I do,” said Germann, 52 — even though, for the record, he started his career in TV and once thought of aquariums as just cool places for school field trips.

So what’s it been like running the non-profit, conservation-based Aquarium — now smartly positioned by rapidly developing Water Street and expecting up to 900,000 visitors a year — through a pandemic? Where does Germann look for work-life balance? And since he got here, has he managed to switch his fierce Chicago sports allegiances to Tampa Bay’s Rays, Bucs, and Lightning?

Tell me about a day at the Aquarium for you.

It could be meeting with donors, working the floor and greeting guests, working with our board, working with public officials on how we can be an economic driver. How can I fulfill that mission to save wildlife from extinction? That’s what drives me.

What’s your favorite place in the Aquarium?

You know, that gets CEOs in trouble when you pick one.

It could be one of those days when it’s a little bit stressing, and to get to watch the sharks and hear that soothing music ... Sometimes I sit out here (at the Aquarium’s outdoor splash pad area with a view of ships and the channel) and hear the music and the kids (while he’s on the phone).

I’m a big walker. I don’t think you can be an effective CEO if you sit in your office, if you’re not familiar with what actually happens.

Sharks at the Florida Aquarium.
Sharks at the Florida Aquarium.

You’re from Chicago.

Southwest side of Chicago, the blue collar part of town. My dad worked for the railroad, my mom was a public school teacher. Learned at an early age a work ethic.

I graduated from the University of Illinois Chicago in 1991. I wanted to be in television. My junior year in college a friend and I started a local cable access show and started calling hockey games, University of Illinois hockey.

How did you get from there to aquariums?

So I worked in television for awhile. The first show I worked on was a weekend show with Michael Jordan.

If I wanted to be in front of the camera, I’d have to go to a smaller market. I just loved the big city, so I stayed behind the camera.

I then went into government communications, policy analysis. (I was) a campaign manager. I worked for the House of Representatives, the state treasurer. I worked for folks on both sides of the aisle. That was the ‘90s. There were still moderates.

In 2000, I went to the Shedd Aquarium (in Chicago) as a communications person, and the rest was history.

I thought (aquariums) were just a cool place to go for a field trip. I didn’t realize these places were dedicated to saving wildlife, being part of a community, creating the next Sylvia Earle and Jacques Cousteau. After about eight months, I said, “I found my calling.”

How many years were you there?

Almost 17. Then this opportunity came up. They were going through the national search.

But you like the big city.

(Tampa) is a big enough city.

Some people in the zoo and aquarium world said, “Where would you (be willing to) go?” My answer was, “It has to have at least one professional sports team.” And they laughed. And I said, “No, I’m serious.”

(Tampa) kind of had that big city mentality. Three professional teams here. That’s a good feel.

Everyone here knows we’re all in (for the Tampa Bay teams), except for maybe one game a year when you play one of our deep-rooted Chicago teams. Then we’ll stay home.

It’s been fun to be part of this Champa Bay.

We spend time in St. Pete, we’ll go to the beaches. We’ve embraced this three-city community. We’re members of the Straz. We have passes to all the museums. It’s home.

Fans at Amalie Arena before the start of the recent game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Chicago Blackhawks.
Fans at Amalie Arena before the start of the recent game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Chicago Blackhawks. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

A year after the Aquarium closed for eight weeks and reopened early in the pandemic, you gave employees a day off work. At work.

Your greatest resource is your colleagues. So wellness was an important component of our philosophy.

We never cut pay — the executive team took a voluntary staff cut — and we paid people through our closure. You think that goes a long way toward loyalty? I do.

We thought we just kind of needed a day to recharge the batteries. We decided we were going to forgo the revenue and close the building. It was a day of wellness.

The animals had to be taken care of. But we provided all kinds of stuff (for employees) — lunches, yoga, fishing off the (aquarium’s) boat. You could get a chair and sit in a corner and read a book.

At one of the meetings, somebody said, “Why don’t we just give a vacation day?’ I said “It’s not the same thing.” If I had a vacation day, I’m not doing yoga. You’re probably not going fishing, you’re painting your house. The wellness just was important.

How do you try to get to a work/life balance?

I rarely take wholesale days off. I’d rather have the flexibility of leaving work early or coming in late for family (events). So rather than me taking a week off for vacation, it’s the flexibility.

To me it’s more important to take an hour off to (go by Chik-Fil-A and) take chicken sandwiches to my daughter’s school (for students on Field Day) or to leave early so I don’t miss a baseball game.

You have a short time to be a dad. I don’t want to miss those moments.

What do you do for fun?

I’m a dad (to Ike, 12, and Anica, 10) and a husband (to Laura Zaremba, who works in health care consulting.) I’m involved in a lot of boards, baseball and flag football. Fun is being a dad and a husband.

What do your kids think of your job?

They really love it. They’ve grown up in zoos and aquariums. They’ve had some amazing experiences — a 4-year-old feeding a rhino.

What’s next for the aquarium?

Every aspect of the organization is in a growth mode.

Our conservation/rescue/rehab programs will have greater impact in the wild and include more animals, our learning programs will expand to reach more kids across the state, we’ll be creating new on-site, never-before-offered experiences starting this summer, and we’ll launch a new meaningful community engagement initiative.

Looking to the next 3 to 5 years, we’ll have a major announcement later this year about our dynamic future plans for expanding the Aquarium experience. Stay tuned!