Buying a Business: A Banker Buys a ZooApr 10, 2009
by Susan Crandell
photo by Nicola Vetter
George Oldenburg gave up a successful banking career at 45 to buy a small-town animal farm
George Oldenburg always said that the best job he ever had was working at a pet shop while he was in high school. Little did he know that three decades later, his career would come full circle when he purchased a pet shop extraordinaire—a small-town zoo near Lafayette, Louisiana. At 45, he became the proud father of Willie the lion, Henrietta the pygmy hippopotamus, and Humphrey the camel, just a few of the star attractions among the more than 300 animals at the 42-acre Zoo of Acadiana.
Today, with three years of zoo ownership behind him, George’s voice is still colored with the enthusiasm of a new venture as he describes his plans to develop the 13-year-old zoo into a don’t-miss for tourists and a gathering place for Louisiana locals.
Nothing in George’s life suggested such an unconventional career step. Growing up in Lafayette in a family of five kids, his pets were plentiful but pedestrian: dogs and cats, hamsters and gerbils, a turtle and an aquarium full of fish. After earning a degree in horticulture at the University of Louisiana, he got a job working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, making loans to farmers. A few years later when he had a chance to move into banking, he grabbed it. “I had just gotten married, and felt it would be a more secure position,” George remembers. He was good at the new job and enjoyed the work. His family thrived, and so did his career. He moved up through the ranks, supervising the bank’s various branches, overseeing consumer loans and credit card business. It was a full life, including a board presidency at the school his boys attended and rewarding work on a chamber of commerce project to revive downtown Lafayette. But after 20 years, it wasn’t enough. “I put a lot of people into business who were very successful and happy,” George says. “Whenever I’d make a loan, I’d think, boy, it’d be nice to work for myself.”
When the zoo was put up for sale five years ago, George considered making an offer, but felt that with a young family, the time wasn’t right. Two years later, when the opportunity came again, he didn’t hesitate. “I called my wife and told her I wanted to buy the zoo.” She was enthusiastic, and their three boys—then 10, 12, and 14—were so excited they could hardly keep the secret until the deal had closed. George’s parents were a harder sell. “We took my mom and dad out for a dinner of boiled crawfish to make the big announcement,” he recalls. “They thought I was insane.”
A Few Dark Doubts
George admits that beyond the rosy glow of the dream lay a few dark doubts. “At the start, I did a lot of worrying about buying a business where your assets can die,” he says. “And I had to resign from the bank before I could even make an offer, so there’d be no conflict of interest. It was risky to quit my job, then apply for a loan.” After 30 days of unemployment, his $1.2 million purchase price was accepted and the bank loan approved. The die was cast; George was a zookeeper.
Since then, he’s busier than ever—and happier, too. Working at the zoo is never dull, and George relishes pitching in on almost any job. “I can do electrical work or plumbing, build fences, work with animals, or plan a wedding reception.” If a driver calls in sick, he runs the zoo train.
But the best part has been learning about the animals. “I can walk through the zoo now and immediately spot something that’s not right.” He’s equally delighted that the animals recognize him. “If a particular tiger spots me, she’ll walk up to the fence and make a chuffing noise.”
Doing PR for the zoo, occasionally he’s gotten to know the animals a little too well. “On a local morning show, I was talking away to the host and had no idea that the parrot sitting on my shoulder was eating my microphone. After the segment, the producer said, ‘Thanks for coming, and you owe us $400.’” On another TV appearance, an eight-foot Burmese python worked its way up into his pants. One day he took an important new acquisition, a baby white tiger, to do a school presentation. “There I was, in front of the class, when Jolie decided to take a bite out of my leg. It hurt bad, but I didn’t want to let on in front of the kids.”
A Lot Dirtier, and a Lot Happier
Cat nips aside, George says he’s never been healthier. “Since I bought the zoo, I’ve lost weight, and I haven’t taken a single sick day. My wife says I’ve had a personality change; I come home a lot dirtier, but a lot happier.” It’s seeing the big smiles on guests’ faces that makes all the hard work worthwhile. One of George’s new attendance boosters is a Snore ‘n’ Roar program that brings scouting groups to the zoo. They take a twilight tour of the exhibits, camp out overnight, and in the morning enjoy a backstage peek at the daily vet clinic and kitchen. One enraptured young boy told George, “This is the best day of my life.”
October 3, 2002, was not the best day of George’s life. Three years later, he still remembers the dread. “When Hurricane Lili headed our way, I knew it could wipe me out.” He and his staff moved animals, boarded up exhibits, and hoped for the best. George even brought home a favorite goat from the petting zoo and some snakes and birds. After the storm, the zoo was littered with broken tree limbs—“It looked horrible,” George says—but all the animals were alive. It only took George’s team three days to get the place in order and open again, but it took months for people in Lafayette to rebuild their houses. Until then, they weren’t even thinking about going to the zoo. “The storm took a big chunk out of our business that year,” George says.
Despite this setback, George’s new programs have revitalized the zoo, which turned a profit in 2004. He still doesn’t draw a salary, preferring to reinvest the money in the property. His family lives on his wife Marleen’s earnings as a registered nurse plus income from some rental properties they own. “I couldn’t have done this without my banking background,” George says. In spring, when attendance peaks, there’s a lot of money coming in. “I could go crazy buying animals and building exhibits. But come August when school starts, we’re pretty slow, and I have to plan for that.”
Running the zoo has become a family affair. “My boys are learning what hard work is,” he notes.” George’s oldest son dreams of taking over the zoo one day. This, of course, delights his dad.
Just as Much Equity in the Zoo as in a 401(k)
“I could have stayed at the bank another 20 years,” George says. “But I’m building just as much equity in the zoo as I’d have in my 401(k).” At times, George brings work home. “We got a six-week-old white tiger last year, and she required bottle-feeding every four hours.” For three months, she went home with George every night, and he and Marleen would take turns getting up. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
When pressed, George admits he’s working more than ever before, and seldom takes a vacation day. But it doesn’t matter when work feels like fun. “At the bank, I was starting to count the hours; now it’s more like a hobby than a job.”
His career reinvention had to be a midlife event. “I wouldn’t have bought the zoo at 35. My children were small, and I didn’t feel that secure in my abilities,” he says. “At 45, I was looking for a change. My brother-in-law was killed in a plane crash the year before I bought the zoo, and it made me think: I could die tomorrow and miss out on something I really wanted to do.” That’s all George has time to say; he’s off to check on the spider monkeys.
Susan Crandell, the former editor of More magazine, is the author of the book Thinking About Tomorrow: Reinventing Yourself at Midlife.
Republished with permission of Hachette Book Group. Copyright © 2007 Susan Crandell. All rights reserved.