Inside Track: D’Arienzo sees zoos as a way to change the world
The new John Ball Zoo CEO has a lengthy background in the entertainment industry.
As Peter D’Arienzo settled into a chair in a conference room at the John Ball Zoo administrative offices, he twisted off the cap of a water bottle.
The brisk late January morning was less than a month into D’Arienzo’s stint as the CEO of the zoo, and he was elaborating on the reasons he had relocated to Grand Rapids, including the city’s commitment to sustainability.
Then he glanced down at the plastic water bottle in his hand — an environmental no-no.
“I’m working on it,” he said with a laugh.
But D’Arienzo is serious about his impressions of the city’s and zoo’s commitment to the environment.
D’Arienzo said his desire to help the West Michigan area progress even further is just one step on his personal journey to have an impact on the world.
The 44-year-old wasn’t able to begin that journey until the economy began to tank in 2007, which is what prompted him to set his career choice on a new path.
At the time, he had been with AMC Theatres for 21 years — ever since the summer following his high school graduation in Miami, Florida.
“Theaters were struggling, and they went round after round with layoffs, but I survived well,” D’Arienzo said. “Eventually, I was offered an exit package — and it was a good thing, too, because if I had stayed around any longer, I wouldn’t have ended up with one.”
The layoff allowed D’Arienzo to rethink his career and life choices and set forth in a new direction in which he could “change the world” — something he had mulled over since he was a child.
When he was young, his family move from New York City to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to San Juan, Puerto Rico, and then to Miami. Moving to various tropical locales while his father worked in the energy sector, D’Arienzo found himself drawn to the environmental sciences.
His pursuit of a career in environmental science soon took a back seat, however.
D’Arienzo was paying his way through college and an engineering degree at the University of Miami while working at AMC Theatres. He began by popping popcorn, but as he progressed up the ladder into theater management, the good money and career opportunities drew him away from college.
The decision seemed like a smart one at the time, he said, especially as he made the leap to corporate roles within the company and, finally, to the corporate office in Kansas City, Missouri.
Prior to his move to Kansas City, D’Arienzo had helped open AMC theaters across the nation, which is when he made an important discovery.
“I’d be presented with business plans that looked great, but (a plan) would work in one market and not another,” he said. “It’s all about the people. It’s about seeing the people’s strengths and leveraging them.”
Once he got to Kansas City, he was pressured to go back to college and get a business degree, but he chose instead to study organizational development at Rockhurst University.
At the time of his departure from AMC Theatres, he was in charge of North American food and beverage operations for the corporation, overseeing more than 300 theater locations.
“This will sound silly, but I thought, ‘How have I changed the world?’” D’Arienzo said. “Sure, I launched a pizza program, but did that really make the world a better place?
“The layoff allowed me to refocus my passion.”
He soon landed a job at Donaldson Manufacturing in Kansas City, which makes a variety of filters for a wide array of industries. As human resources manager, he worked with 160 team members and helped launch new safety and environmental management systems to reduce the plant’s impact on the environment.
After a year, D’Arienzo felt he had made a difference in staff morale and productivity, but wondered how much his efforts impacted the world beyond the manufacturing plant. It was similar to how he felt during his time at AMC Theatres.
Then, an opportunity to be director of operations at Kansas City Zoo came along.
“‘I got to follow my passion, have an audience and convey a message, and together, change the world,” D’Arienzo said.
A little more than two years later, D’Arienzo heard about John Ball Zoo’s search for a new CEO. He went through the interview process and, as he did so, fell in love with Grand Rapids.
“What an amazing city,” he said. “It’s like a hidden gem. Its family values, the focus on the arts and the commitment to sustainability — it’s a perfect culture fit to how I view the world and approach life. It’s where I want to be.”
For D’Arienzo, how zoos have changed over the years played a huge role in his desire to work for them. Long gone is the idea that zoos are bad for animals — at least, when it comes to those certified by the American Zoo Association, as John Ball Zoo is.
The benefits of such a zoo go far beyond its four walls, he said, referring to a zoo’s programs that educate the public and even save animal species from extinction.
The natural beauty of the grounds of John Ball Zoo, which is set in the hills overlooking Grand Rapids’ west side, is also a major benefit, he said.
His work now is in significant contrast to his work with movie theaters, he said, but the similarities between the two industries have made the career switch easy. Both are businesses that need to manage their financial goals regarding retail, ticket sales and food operations. Both have marketing and product launches.
“I would say there are more similarities than differences, as they both serve guests and are about the experience,” D’Arienzo said. “They both bring families together, but zoos do it much better because they can interact — which if you do at a movie, you’re in trouble,” he joked.
“They’re both about the guest experience and business model, but zoos are far more rewarding.”
A zoo’s programs can help the community learn about animals and their habitats, how human behavior affects them and how people can help the animals. To be accredited by the AZA, zoos must have extensive enrichment programs and exceptional habitats to keep the animals stimulated and comfortable.
AZA-accredited zoos also help save species from extinction, both in West Michigan’s backyard and across the globe, D’Arienzo said, all of which helps him feel like he’s helping to change the world.
His commitment to better the globe didn’t go unnoticed by the zoo’s board of directors during the hiring process.
“When he says he wants to change the world, he means it,” said Michael Lomonaco, who sits on the John Ball Zoo board and is director of marketing and communications at Open Systems Technologies. “He’s a leader all day long. He has this uncanny ability to lead, and while John Ball Zoo might not change the world, little things he does along the way can help. He’s a rare find.”
“At AMC, you’re trying to squeeze as much money out of the bottom line as you can,” D’Arienzo said. “I can do the same thing here, but I get to have an audience, educate the public and serve the community. That’s what leadership is all about.”