An accountant goes aquatic

Aquarium boss likes mix of fins, financials

Anthony Godfrey knows a lot more about finances than fish. But lately he’s had to take a crash course on the latter.

For instance, he’s learned that a small, otherworldly-looking critter called a leafy sea dragon (a relative of the seahorse) can cost more to feed than a Beluga whale. And, to his delight, he’s discovered that certain hand signals in front of the Beluga tank can cause those ghost-like mammals to begin a stunning ballet.

“The first time you touch a Beluga; that’s a life-changing moment,” Godfrey said. “The folks here taught me a few hand signals to communicate with them. That ruined me. You really believe that whale is connecting with you.”

Godfrey’s job these days is to make sure that Georgia Aquarium visitors connect with the massive ship-shaped facility — and keep coming back. An accountant by training, the 44-year-old Godfrey is heading into his eighth month as president and chief operating officer of the world’s biggest indoor fish tank, the third person to lead the aquarium since it opened in late 2005.

The downtown Atlanta aquarium has become the No. 2 tourist attraction in the state — right behind Stone Mountain — and an icon of a city whose financial engine is primed with convention and tourism dollars.

Godfrey assumed the aquarium helm smack-dab in the middle of the economic downturn, just as the aquarium was about to welcome its 10 millionth visitor and was in the middle of a massive $110 million expansion to showcase dolphins. The expansion, scheduled to open late next year, will include a 1,600-seat theater and eventually will promote programs in which aquarium visitors interact with the animals.

Keeping visits up

Atlanta’s tourism dollars have been sagging recently. The nearby Georgia World Congress Center, where most big conventions are headquartered, lost $1.3 million in its 2009 budget year, which ended June 30. The convention hub predicts a loss of $5.7 million for the current fiscal year.

So far, the aquarium has maintained its attendance numbers, thanks to rotating exhibits like the just-closed Titanic artifact display and a series of new programs. Godfrey said the aquarium plans to open a new exhibit or kick off a new program every 90 days.

Attendance peaked at 3.6 million visitors in 2006 — the first full year the aquarium was open — dropped to 2.6 million in 2007 and leveled off at 2.2 million in 2008. The aquarium predicts 2.3 million people will visit this year.

Those “front gate” numbers are critical for the aquarium, which requires about $35 million a year just to open the doors. It employs 220 people full-time and has about the same number of part-timers. Its giant pumps filter tanks holding more than 8 million gallons of water. And then there are the thousands of fish, marine mammals and penguins that like to eat.

“When I first came to work here [former aquarium executive director] Jeff Swanagan told me I would do things here I would do in no other workplace,” Godfrey said. “And he was right.”

Working the floor

Godfrey, who came to the aquarium as chief financial officer before it opened in late 2005, has helped arrange special tours for children dying of cancer. He has walked its five galleries with celebrities — recently teen superstar Miley Cyrus shot scenes from an upcoming movie there. And he’s spent a lot of time chatting with ordinary aquarium visitors

“One of the reasons there is a dolphin expansion going on is we’d be on the floor and people would say: ‘Where are your dolphins?’ ” he said. “In most corporations you never meet your customers. Here you can walk the floor and meet them every day.”

Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus, who donated $250 million of his fortune to build the aquarium, said Godfrey was much more than the fish tank’s financial guy from the day he arrived. Marcus, 80, whose gift allowed the nonprofit aquarium to open debt-free, still serves as its CEO and board chairman.

Godfrey replaced Mike Leven as aquarium chief after Leven left to join the Las Vegas Sands Corp. Leven had replaced Swanagan, the aquarium’s first leader, who left to head up the Columbus Zoo in his home state of Ohio. Swanagan died earlier this year of a heart attack.

“Anthony was a balance of power between the business side and the entertainment side and the fish side,” Marcus said in a telephone interview. “I relied on him to balance off some of the fish guys. He doesn’t play politics. He just calls it the way it is.”

Schooled in service

Marcus said the fact Godfrey is not a biologist was a plus in the early going. The home-improvement billionaire said he was impressed by Godfrey’s habit of spending a lot of time on the floor of the aquarium talking with visitors — a tactic for which Marcus was known during his Home Depot days.

Godfrey was schooled in customer service by an uncle who ran several grocery stores in North Georgia where Godfrey grew up. He graduated from Fannin County High School in Blue Ridge.

“My uncle sat us down one day when we were just teenagers and said: ‘OK, boys, I know you’re young. But this is how customer service works.’ ”

Godfrey’s dad was an electrician and his mom a housewife. They emphasized hard work and a morally centered life. Godfrey is a deacon at the First Baptist Church in Cumming near his Forsyth County home.

“You didn’t get money given to you in my family; you had to earn it,” he said. “It was one of those things where you went to school and you went to ball practice and you went to work.”

Getting people wet

Godfrey deflected criticism from some corners that the aquarium has emphasized the entertainment aspect of its mission over research and conservation

“We’ve been around for just 3½ years,” he said. “To do the research we’ve done so far is pretty awesome for a facility our age. But you will see a lot more.”

The aquarium has funded whale shark research off the Yucatan Peninsula for the last five years. It is the only aquarium outside Asia to house the huge, polka-dotted sharks that can grow to the size of a school bus.

Some scientists have criticized the aquarium for housing the massive fish in its 6.3 million-gallon Ocean Voyager gallery. Two of the aquarium’s original whale sharks died after their tank was treated with a chemical bath intended to rid fish of gill parasites. The aquarium, which was designed around the whale shark tank, currently has four healthy whale sharks.

“If you didn’t have animals in captivity where you come and learn about them and appreciate them, I don’t think people would care about those animals or the environment as much as they do,” Godfrey said. “When you leave here you’ll think twice about some things you might do to the oceans that would hurt these animals.”

Aquarium spokeswoman Meghann Gibbons said the facility has budgeted more than $600,000 for “various research and conservation projects” for 2009. She said that figure does not include the $3 million investment in the aquarium’s Dolphin Conservation and Field Station in Marineland, Fla.

And the aquarium has brought scientist Greg Bossart aboard to boost its research efforts.

Godfrey, meanwhile, said he wants to introduce more programs like the dive-and-swim program that puts visitors up close with the big fish in the big tank. Since the program kicked off in July 2008, about 5,000 people have gotten into the tank with the whale sharks.

“We’re trying to get people more on the wet side, the more emotive side,” he said. “If I can get your hands and feet wet before you leave here, you’ve had a completely different experience.”

Meet Anthony Godfrey

  • Age: 44
  • Title: President and chief operating officer, Georgia Aquarium
  • Time in job: 8 months
  • Family: Wife, Lisa; two daughters, ages 12 and 16
  • Education: Degree in accounting from the University of South Carolina
  • Previous jobs: Worked for several software and telecom firms and later in the long-stay hotel business
  • Fishy factoid: Godfrey has a 6,000-gallon koi pond at his home near Cumming.