What I've Learned

Life Lessons from Former Universal Studios CEO Bob Gault

Life lessons from Bob Gault, former top exec at Universal Studios and Sea World.

By Susan Burns December 27, 2017 Published in the January 2018 issue of Sarasota Magazine

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Bob Gault at his Longboat home.

Image: Barbara Banks

In 1964, 20-year-old Bob Gault began sweeping sidewalks and taking tickets for the new SeaWorld of San Diego. He ended up spending 29 years with SeaWorld, becoming president for SeaWorld in San Diego, Ohio and Orlando. He spent another 15 years with Universal Studios, first as the president of Universal Studios Hollywood, then as executive vice president of Universal Studios Japan and finally, the CEO of Universal Studios Orlando Resort before retiring in 2006. Gault, 73, and his wife, Shannon, met at SeaWorld in 1976 when she was the director of sales; the couple has lived on Longboat Key since 2007. Gault had already retired when, in 2010, Tilikum, SeaWorld Orlando’s infamous orca, killed a young trainer, but the event still saddens him. It never should have happened, he says.

“When I got my job at SeaWorld, I was in pre-dental in college and I realized I loved the outdoors. I’m a type A person who would not be happy in an office with appointments all day. I looked at the people [at SeaWorld] above me, and I tried to figure how they did their jobs, so I would be the logical person if there was an opening.”

“One of my first jobs at SeaWorld was at a pool where they had yellowfin tuna, so the kids could fish. The chairman, Milt Shedd, was putting bait on these little barbless hooks for the kids and I’m helping him. Afterwards, he said, ‘Bob, there’s something important for you to understand. We are in the business of creating good feelings for people. That’s what we do.’ It was so simple. He saw a young man who was too into the task and not as much into interacting with people. I will never forget that. All businesses should be creating good feelings for people.”

“When you research what’s most important to employees—Is it pay? Is it benefits? Is it vacations? The No. 1 thing is appreciation of work done. Whether they’re a janitor or department head, employees need to feel they’re making a meaningful contribution and the leaders above them recognize this. It works instantly. People will follow you off a cliff, figuratively speaking, or more importantly, they won’t let you walk off the cliff.”

“More managers don’t recognize this because of ego. Some people can’t handle power. I’ve worked for a lot of leaders who use fear and intimidation. It gets the exact opposite results.”

“Business happens where the customers are. So many leaders get up in that ivory tower and they’re having meetings all day. I worked for August Busch III [CEO of Anheuser-Busch, a former owner of SeaWorld] and he was a tough leader, but he would go out to Budweiser distributors all over the country. He would look at the plant and talk to the brew masters and the guys who were loading the trucks. That’s how you get ideas for how to make decisions that impact the business.”

“I always walked through one of the parks on Thanksgiving or Christmas Day. One Thanksgiving I went to the park to say ‘Hi’ and wish everyone a happy Thanksgiving. My dad was tagging along. I was saying, ‘Hi, Jim,’ ‘Hi, Susie.’ ‘Happy Thanksgiving, Bill.’ Afterwards, my dad said, ‘Bob, how in the hell do you know all of those people’s names?’ ‘Dad, I don’t. I know a lot of them, but I can’t know all of them. I’m farsighted. I can read a nametag from 150 feet.’”

“When I hired people, I’d ask, ‘Why do you want the job?’ ‘Tell me about yourself.’ ‘What do you know about our business?’ I wanted to see if they’d done any homework, if they were motivated. You’re asking yourself, could this person move into a manager level? Can this director move into a vice president role? You’re looking for motivation and potential.”

“Ninety percent of of CEOs who get fired, it’s not because of incompetence. They fail because of chemistry with their superior, a board, with their coworkers, staff and how they manage. They’ve rubbed people the wrong way and that’s all it takes.”

“The most challenging job was in Japan. Universal Studios entered into a joint venture with the Japanese, Universal Studios Japan in Osaka, a television studio, motion picture studio and a huge theme park designed like a souped-up Orlando. I was used to getting things done. ‘Let’s make a decision and let’s go.’ But in their culture, they would beat something to death before they’d make a decision. I started out by trying to create a casual Friday where everybody could wear jeans and a polo shirt. I realized later that some of them still came to work in their suits and [changed] at the office. They would put their suits back on to go home. They didn’t want to appear unemployed in the train stations. Still, they started to loosen up once they knew that I respected them and was just trying to let them know it’s OK to smile.”

“9/11 was a tough time. [Gault became president of Universal Studios Orlando on Oct. 1, 2001, as the tourism industry collapsed.] It was more important than ever to team build and to demonstrate that we’re all feeling it and struggling. I had just come from Japan where we were spending money like crazy, to ‘No, we can’t fix the roof on that soundstage.’ Employees have to know that you’re hurting over [letting people go]. They’re not a number or a name, they’re human beings.”

“There was always some fringe concern about marine mammals in captivity. SeaWorld advised and helped Congress write the Marine Mammal Protection Act in the early ’70s that saved thousands of killer whales. The SeaWorld founders created on Day One a nonprofit marine research institute. SeaWorld would throw in $3 million a year to help fund their research. Over 50 years, SeaWorld entertained but, more importantly, educated hundreds of millions of people, who have never even been to the ocean or had the opportunity to observe these beautiful animals.”

“Thirty years ago SeaWorld bought Tilikum [the killer whale featured in Blackfish, the 2013 documentary that questioned keeping orcas in captivity after Tilikum killed three people] as a breeding whale so we would never have to collect killer whales again. Tilikum was in this little crappy [facility in Victoria, British Columbia] with a female that was pregnant. They were worried about him hurting the baby. We needed a breeding male. He was a wonderful breeder. We shipped his semen out to California and Texas and everywhere and never had to go into the wild again. But he had a reputation for being his own man. We had rules. No one could work with him unless there was a four-foot wall between him and the trainer. Never any water work. Over the years different owners, different managers and the operating culture evolved away from awareness of Tilikum’s history and the intent for him to be a breeder. Hindsight is 20/20. Just painful to see.”

“When the Blackfish people came in [management] said, ‘We’re not going to talk to you,' instead of being proactive and showing how much they cared. Transparency is critical. They had a story to tell, but they didn’t tell it.”

“I wish I’d spent more time with my four kids, but I was just trying to survive. A lot of young people are coming out of college expecting $100,000 for a 40-hour week. That doesn’t exist. There’s no such thing as a perfect balance. If you go to the boss and say I want to be vice president, but I want to work 40 hours and I need two days off a week to be with my kids, they’re going to say that’s great and you should figure out a way to do that, but I need you more than 40 hours a week. You’ve got to put in the time.”

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