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CEO's Spirit of Fun Helps Long Beach Aquarium Employees Get in the Swim

March 22, 1998|MARTHA GROVES

Whenever the executive in charge of hiring at the nascent Long Beach Aquarium of the Pacific has doubts about a job candidate's ability to fit in, she trots him or her into the office of President and Chief Executive Warren Iliff.

If the prospective employee gets a chuckle out of the decor--including the duck feet crossing the ceiling, the antique brass diving helmet and the two stuffed dinosaur-like critters in an ornate glass-topped box--chances are the relationship will be a success. But if the candidate winces and reaches for his button-down collar or her Coach briefcase, the deal's off.

"The tone is set at the top," says Susan Loveira, vice president of human resources. Requirement No. 1: Have a sense of playfulness and humor.

Hard-hatted crews are still busily constructing the fish tanks, cafes and shops at the site of the big $117-million aquarium, scheduled to open June 20. In the meantime, Iliff is also building something else from the ground up: a corporate culture.

"We are trying to establish a 'winning' culture for our animals, employees, volunteers, guests and our institution," Iliff says.

Under the circumstances, he figures, nothing is more important than maintaining morale.

With everyone from curators to aquarists to marketing people working overtime to make this major-league facility a reality, Iliff looks for ways to encourage fun and relieve tension.

He treats all new employees to lunch and participates in monthly staff birthday parties. Employees are recognized with "Atta Fish!" awards, and they take field trips to visit other museums. They are encouraged to participate in community beach cleanups and fish counts.

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Loveira's cartoons adorn the institution's irreverent newsletter, The Aquarium Enquirer, which is replete with information about employees' families, hobbies and accomplishments. The aquarium's World Wide Web site (http://www.aquariumofpacific.org) features a daily trivia quiz and "eel-mail."

In the converted trailers where the aquarists, zoologists, marine biologists and other "fish people" hang out, the atmosphere is as laid back as a surfer convention. Topaz, a plump cat that someone dumped at the site a few months back, lies curled up on a desk chair.

"It's our rodent control device," said Ken Yates, a zoologist who was the aquarium's third employee, more than 150 hires ago.

The humor has spilled over into plans for aquarium programs. Groups of children will be invited to have sleepovers in the building. Once the facility is operating, young visitors will earn a "harbor seal of approval" for collecting information as they make the rounds of tanks and exhibits.

Early on, Iliff, a former zoo director whose career has taken him all over the country, made sure that the aquarium joined the Los Angeles-area chapter of Business for Social Responsibility, a San Francisco-based group dedicated to ensuring that organizations balance the often competing demands of investors, employees, communities, customers and the environment.

A desire to do good comes naturally to the staff, which sees its mission as the preservation of the Pacific Ocean and the creatures in it, says Susan C. DeLand, the aquarium's vice president of enterprise development and the BSR representative.

"The atmosphere is very charged," she says. "Everybody's going for a common goal. We're all learning from one another."

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Although the environment is usually collegial, Iliff is aware that conflicts are inevitable and that employees can need help to function as a team. So he has hired Kerri Jo Cooper, an organizational consultant in San Diego, to help develop his seven-member executive squad.

"They want to make sure as they're setting up their business that they do it right the first time," Cooper says.

Cooper enjoys working with start-up organizations. "You're not trying to fix something you didn't pay attention to," she says. "You're creating it. I've worked with Fortune 500 companies, and I've seen how difficult it is to turn the ship around."

Cooper defines a corporate culture as the pattern of values and beliefs that are shared by the members. When employees grasp it, she says, they understand what's expected of them and what sort of behavior gets rewarded or punished.

Iliff has set a lofty goal for the aquarium: winning a Malcolm Baldrige award for quality within five years.

"Organizations often don't continue developing and growing," he says. "They don't set new challenges.

"It's especially important for us to do that. We are a conservation organization. The stakes are really high. We need to be really involved."

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Has your company developed an innovative culture? Tell us about it. Write to Martha Groves, Corporate Currents, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053, or e-mail martha.groves@latimes.com

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