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Where the wild things are

Alum Rembrandt Sutorius, Director of Amsterdam's 185-year-old ARTIS Zoo, discusses what brought him there—and what makes it such a special place.
Rembrandt Sutorius with elephants
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How did you get involved with ARTIS | Amsterdam Royal Zoo and Botanical Gardens, and what attracted you about the role?

My wife and I moved back to Amsterdam after having spent an amazing time in Sydney. We were expecting our first child and wanted to be close to family and friends. But once back I was still abroad most of the time, as my clients were all over Europe and Africa. I wanted to be home more often, so something needed to change.

I remember going to the Amsterdam Zoo and Botanical Gardens (ARTIS) with some good friends and my one-year-old son on a summer night. Not so much to see the animals, but to enjoy the lush, green oasis in the middle of the city center with drinks and live music. That night we contemplated life and talked about things like how to get work-life balance right and how to get more purpose in everything we do. And when it came to a career discussion, my friends joked that I should become the director of ARTIS.

Taking a leap of faith, I decided to reach out to the former director to offer my support. Soon after, I started to support ARTIS in various ways. Over time it became increasingly clear to me that ARTIS was so much more than just a zoo. It is a national icon loaded with cultural heritage, a botanical garden, a nature conservation organization, an education institute, the world’s only museum of microbes (Micropia), a planetarium, a museum about how all life is interconnected, and of course a zoo. As a result, I became more and more attached to ARTIS – both to the organization and to the physical location.

Three years after that night in ARTIS I parted ways with McKinsey to travel with my family through Europe. I was somewhere near Napoli, Italy when I got a call asking if I was interested in becoming the director of ARTIS. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me, as well as for my family, as we would also be living on the premises in the park. Five years into this role I still feel privileged to have been able to make this move.

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The Groote Museum, part of the ARTIS Zoo

How does the deep history and culture of the zoo help drive decision making?

ARTIS is a special place, with much more meaning for me than just a zoo. It is one of the oldest zoos in the world, founded in 1838. It is the place where the nature conservation movement started in the Netherlands. It is one of those few places that everyone in the Netherlands knows and loves. So when it comes to decision making I tread very carefully; keeping all our stakeholders in mind and realizing that we are looking after ARTIS for the next generations.

Over the last 185 years, ARTIS has always been ever-changing to adjust to the times to find its societal relevance. Today is no different. We are in the midst of a transition from a traditional zoo to a garden of life where nature is presented in its full array from microbes to animals, plants, and even the planet itself. ARTIS can have an enormous impact by engaging with its 2 million visitors a year to inspire and motivate them to care a bit better for the world around us.

The history and culture of the organization requires that such a transition should not be executed too fast. If we go too fast we lose our identity and we will lose visitors; too slow, and we will lose our relevance. It’s about striking the right balance.

What do you do on a typical day?

Many people ask me this question, but the answer is not that simple as there is not a ‘typical day’. Every day is different. There is a typical start of the day, though; a walk from my house along the parrots, macaques and wolves, to my office next to the griffon vultures. The rest of the day could be almost anything. Over the last months I have been very involved in developing a new lion enclosure, launching a new museum, fundraising for the restoration of the historic Aquarium, executing our long-term masterplan, and finding talent that prioritizes purpose over compensation. But a year ago my agenda looked completely different. We were exclusively focused then on surviving the COVID-19 pandemic – ensuring a safe operation and organization for our visitors and colleagues, and covering our costs for ongoing animal care in periods in which we had to close for the first time in the history of ARTIS.

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Rembrandt Sutorius and Queen Máxima of the Netherlands at the Groote Museum

What's your favorite part of working at the zoo?

What I like the most is that every day, every week and every month is different. The park itself changes throughout the seasons, and so does my work. In spring it’s all about preparing for summer. In summer it’s all about operation and visitor experience. And in autumn and winter we focus on our museums and planetarium, while we use the low season in the park to realize new animal enclosures and do the necessary maintenance.

Another privilege of the job is of course working with a very diverse, passionate group of colleagues and volunteers that share a common purpose.

How does your McKinsey and business experience translate to something as unique as running a zoo?

In the end, ARTIS, like any organization, needs to be relevant and have impact, while being financially healthy – maybe even more so, as ARTIS is a charitable organization with a clear societal purpose. My business experience helps me to spot the opportunities to reduce costs, increase revenues and have more impact as an organization. That said, spotting opportunities is obviously not the same as capturing them. And in a relatively small organization with a large scope, that remains the biggest challenge.