How partnering kept Philly's dinosaur museum from going extinct

George Gephart, at the museum. He decided that collaboration was the way to the museum's future. "We could deliver to Drexel something they could never build."

GEORGE W. GEPHART JR.

  • Home: Center City, just moved from Newtown Square.
  • Family: Wife, Elizabeth "Pooh;" daughters, Nolan "Nolie" Mangan, 32, Nancy "Nanny," 30, Elizabeth "Libby," 28.
  • For fun: Birder, fly fisherman, hiker, especially in the woods of upstate Pennsylvania.
  • On his desk: Binoculars, to watch the red-tail hawks hunt for prey on Logan Circle.
  • THE ACADEMY OF NATURAL SCIENCES OF DREXEL UNIVERSITY
  • Mission: Research, education, engagement in biodiversity, environmental science. Founded 1812.
  • Dollars: $14.7 million in revenues from grants, visitors, donations, Drexel.
  • People: 240,000 visitors, 145 employees.
  • Up now: Frogs: A Chorus of Colors, 15 species of frogs, exhibits on their habits, habitats through May 14.

Former equity manager George Gephart Jr., 64, now the chief executive at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University,  had already retired once — at age 52 — when he got a call from a headhunter on a wintry day in February 2010.

"I was happily ensconced looking at the snow and the deer eating our azaleas. He said, `Mr. Gephart, your name has been submitted for consideration for the Presidency of the Academy of Natural Sciences.' I will admit I didn't think it was real."

Now what barely seems real, even to Gephart, is that he's making another stab at retirement. A search firm has been hired with a successor likely to be announced in the spring.

Why are you retiring?

My answer probably is hard for some to conceive, because I love this. This is the greatest gig I’ve ever had in my working career. But we have owned property in downtown Charleston, in the historic part, since the late 90s. We have had moving to Charleston for the next great adventure as part of our life plan for so long. 

Was it hard to decide to take the job?

Initially I wasn't sure. Like so many people, I didn't know there was something behind the museum walls. I thought it was a museum, a dinosaur museum, old, a little tired, very proud of its history. I didn't even know there was research element. I was awed when I got behind the scenes in a day-long visit. I went through the collections, and I met the curators and the environmental scientists.

It was exciting?

That was the good news. The bad news was, frankly, this institution, despite its history and pride and asset strength, was in a world of hurt. The business model was fractured; it was not sustainable. This was 2010 and the whole world was in a world of hurt. I said, `You will not fund-raise your way out, because you have lost the support of the big donors. They don't see a strong financial model. Neither can you cut your way out of this.' They had been doing that and probably down to the bones. Shame on me for my capitalist side, but I can't name a single for-profit where they cut their way to success. You grow your way to success.

What was your strategy?

I said, `We're going to collaborate our way to success.' I knew it would be a college or university or another museum. We're sitting on Logan Circle and we own our own building. No debt. In a collaboration, we could take our intellectual assets, put them in another setting, and they could be revenue generators, like tuition. The punch line is we joined Drexel University. We could deliver to Drexel something they could never build. With our PhD scientists, we created a department called Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Sciences. Today we've got 170 to 180 students and there's a new revenue stream. The endowment, at the time I came, was in the low $40 millions. It's now in the high $50s. Better than that, we have momentum. Getting a sustainable business model allows funders to be investors.

A lot of people stop coming when their kids grow up. How do you keep it fresh?

Our sweet spot is a 38-year-old mother with her 2.5 children, ages 3 to 12. We own that. What we need are new exhibitions that will define us as the delivery mechanism for evolution extension, global threats, climate change. An example: the dioramas, which have been around since the 1930s. It's an asset which looks a little tarnished. But here's how it becomes mission critical. Take the moose diorama. The real story should be that this is an animal that's threatened. Temperatures rise and there are new predators. It's called a tick. Because the winters are not severe enough, [the ticks don't die.] The moose become anemic. They become easy prey for wolves. So using modern technology, can we bring that moose to life?

George W. Gephart Jr.

Home: Center City, just moved from Newtown Square.

Family: Wife, Elizabeth "Pooh;" daughters, Nolan "Nolie" Mangan, 32, Nancy "Nanny," 30, Elizabeth "Libby," 28.

For fun: Birder, fly fisherman, hiker, especially in the woods of upstate Pennsylvania.

On his desk: Binoculars, to watch the red-tail hawks hunt for prey on Logan Circle.

The Academy of Natural Sciences

Mission: Research, education, engagement in biodiversity, environmental science. Founded 1812.

Dollars: $14.7 million in revenues from grants, visitors, donations, Drexel.

People: 240,000 visitors, 145 employees.

Up now: Frogs: A Chorus of Colors, 15 species of frogs, exhibits on their habits, habitats through May 14.