Evolutionary approach to a wild ride

This story was first published in The Straits Times on May 13, 2013

IN LESS than 25 years, Mr Lee Meng Tat went from approving loans, delivering lunch and selling beer to becoming the chief executive of Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS).

The 50-year-old, who admits that he does not know much about animals, said his lack of expertise does not worry him. WRS owns the Singapore Zoo, Jurong BirdPark, Night Safari and the newly opened River Safari.

"Throughout my career, I've been asked to go into businesses that I did not have experience in," he said.

"When I went into the beer business, I didn't really drink beer but now, I can hold my liquor."

In his first full-length media interview since joining WRS one year ago, he comes across as personable and candid, but beneath that lies a sharp business mind that he has honed over the years.

Mr Lee studied mechanical engineering in university but became a bank loan officer after graduating. Then, he started his own lunch delivery business.

"I thought, why are other people making money as businessmen? I can do better than them. So I went into business and failed, almost went bankrupt," he said.

He got back on his feet and later had stints at the Economic Development Board, Singapore Tourism Board, and Fraser & Neave, where he spent about seven years in Shanghai on secondment to Asia Pacific Breweries.

What he lacks in experience he makes up for by walking around the park - daily.

Rain or shine, staff will find him observing happenings on the ground and talking to visitors.

He makes it a point to have weekly lunches with staff from the different departments to learn more about their work. On weekends, he will turn up unannounced to walk the grounds, in between ferrying his three children to tuition classes.

"WRS' knowledge of wildlife and conservation is very wide. For someone to add on to that is not what was needed," Mr Lee said. "They needed someone to look at the overall organisation and how to take it forward."

So he made tweaks to the system that he describes as "not revolutionary but evolutionary".

He zoomed in on details, such as having staff at bus stops, taxi stands and car drop-off points to welcome visitors and help families with their baby strollers.

A training programme he plans to implement across all departments includes lessons on how to take photographs for visitors.

"If you volunteer to take a picture of a guy, make sure it's a great picture. Frame it correctly. It's these little things that we're trying to put together," he said.

His approach is to use the human touch while keeping an eye on the bottom line.

He plans to beef up the overlooked food and beverage (F&B) and retail outlets on the premises that make up more than 30 per cent of the operations. "We want to benchmark our F&B operations against the best F&B outlets in Singapore and the region. We cannot excuse ourselves just because we're the zoo," he said.

When Mr Lee joined WRS, he took over from the interim CEO, Ms Isabella Loh, who cancelled Night Safari's "Halloween Horrors" event in 2011 after receiving "negative feedback from corporations, friends of the zoo, the public and the media".

But by the time he came in, "everybody had moved on", he said, adding that he has no plans to bring the event back.

A challenge for Mr Lee, who is used to thinking in terms of profit, is how to strike a balance between doing well and doing good - how to make a profit while keeping to the zoo's mission to inspire appreciation for wildlife and step up conservation efforts.

His weekly lunches and daily walks will continue as he works towards figuring it out.

Mr Lee said: "It's about having the affinity with the people I work with first."

This story was first published in The Straits Times on May 13, 2013

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