By Joe Guidry, former opinion editor, The Tampa Tribune
The story goes that Thom Stork’s first meeting with The Florida Aquarium staff after he was named CEO of the struggling attraction in 2002 was tense. The staff, who took their environmental-education mission seriously, worried the marketing whiz who’d spent most of his career generating buzz for the Anheuser-Busch Theme Parks wouldn’t appreciate their efforts.
So, Thom began the meeting by asking, “All right, where are we going to put the roller coaster?” That was Thom, quick-witted, attuned to others and with a talent for saying the right thing at the right time. The joke, acknowledging their concerns, dispelled the tension.
Thom died of cancer last month after leading the Aquarium to unprecedented success during his 14 years as president and CEO. It is a painful loss to those who knew him. He was a man who knew how to get things done, but who also had a talent for making life more enjoyable — more fun — for those around him.
As the staff quickly learned, Thom was deeply committed to educating visitors about Florida’s marine resources, but he also sought to ensure that families enjoyed their visit and wanted to return. He spent time observing and conversing with visitors to determine what they wanted. These Stork-focused inquiries resulted in the addition of play areas, where parents could let their kids run loose, as well as interactive exhibits, and restaurants.
The marketing master also started eco-cruises around Tampa Bay and held special events that attracted crowds to The Florida Aquarium. He put up a fish aquarium at Tampa International Airport and stingray pools at the Tampa Bay Rays’ Tropicana Field and just last autumn at Tampa Electric’s Manatee Viewing Center.
Attendance steadily rose to record highs of more than 800,000, and the Aquarium consistently operated in the black under his leadership.
But as Thom attracted more visitors, he also maintained focus on its education mission, increasing classroom space and its offerings to students. Last November, the Aquarium celebrated its 1.5 millionth student, a milestone that delighted him.
Marketing executives are sometimes characterized – or derided – as being all “personality” and Thom, to be sure, had buckets of personality (not to mention a touch of flamboyance, with his trademark bowties and snazzy suits, usually accompanied by suspenders). He never met a stranger, and whether before a group of disadvantaged schoolchildren or corporate executives, he inevitably put others at ease.
But beyond his remarkable personal skills, he was a visionary, one whose keen sense of how to please visitors was matched by a resolve that The Florida Aquarium play a key role in “Protecting and Restoring the Blue Planet,” which became the Aquarium’s motto.
Thanks to the Aquarium’s increasing success, it could devote more effort to its environmental research and conservation efforts. Thom was particularly proud of the Aquarium’s pioneering research on the annual staghorn coral spawn, which could help reverse the massive dying off of coral reefs that is taking place around the world.
And typically, Thom managed to establish a research partnership with Cuba’s National Aquarium without stirring up any political whirlpools. He kept the focus on what was important: two countries working together to save imperiled resources.
Thom was involved in numerous civic groups, believing he had an obligation to improve the community. He was not just a name on a board list. He invested time and sweat into his volunteer work because he deeply cared about making Tampa — and Florida — better places to live.
As his board, staff and people throughout the community – including myself – will testify, Thom had a gift for friendship. If he was your friend, he was going to go to bat for you whatever the circumstances. The Tampa Bay Times’ columnist Dan Ruth recently wrote a wonderful piece about how when he was laid off by The Tampa Tribune, Stork promptly sought to help him “rebrand” himself and find another job. All this even though the sometimes-acerbic Ruth was not always kind to the Aquarium.
Stork was similarly kind to me when The Tampa Tribune went out of business last May. He shrugged off my thanks for his efforts on my behalf saying, “This is what longtime friends do.” I ultimately decided not to pursue another full-time job, but I know Thom later supported the creation of this Water Stories blog.
I don’t know a more devoted husband, father or grandfather. The pictures in his office were devoted to his family, not his career. His friends also knew him to be man of quiet faith, who appreciated the power of prayer.
Thom never got to enjoy the retirement that he planned for 2017. He deserved many more good years with his beloved wife, Donna, and his family and friends.
The board likely will find a worthy successor who will build on the success Stork brought to The Florida Aquarium. But if the CEO position can be filled, there will be no replacing Thom Stork’s singular brand of leadership, generosity and good will.