How Brent Andersen founded the Loveland Living Planet Aquarium
For my fifth birthday, my grandmother gave me a hardcover book called The Sea. This single gift determined the direction for the rest of my life.
The images in that book came to life in my mind as I imagined being underwater with them. Some were magical and inviting like the colorful fish, sea stars, and octopus. Some were frightening like the sharks and giant squid. The hours I spent looking at the pictures in that book turned into years of fascination with the underwater world.
One of the pictures showed a scuba diver and I asked my dad what his job was. A marine biologist was the answer, and so that’s when I decided what I would become. That idea became all the more real when “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” began to air on television every Sunday afternoon. From then on, whenever adults would ask what I wanted to be when I grew up―I said I wanted to be a marine biologist.
Unfortunately, not long after my fifth birthday, my parents divorced and the enthusiasm and joy of my childhood were replaced by a harsh and very punitive stepfather and mother. By the time I was a senior in high school, when everyone seemed to be preparing for college entrance exams and talking about which college they wanted to attend, I hadn’t even thought of it. No one in my family had been to college and there wasn’t any discussion about it at home, let alone the money to pay for it. I started to believe that I wasn’t capable of college-level coursework and slowly drifted away from my childhood dream.
But I was able to get an entry-level job at a biotech company called Gull Labs that made virology diagnostic kits and the work was challenging and interesting. After doing well in that job for six months, and being around other people who had gone to college, I began to think about trying one course to see if I could do it. I enrolled in Biology 101 as a night course at Salt Lake Community College (SLCC), and to my surprise, did very well, earning an A.
As my confidence increased, I mapped out all the other courses related to my career path and my job- immunology, calculus, botany, etc.―assuming they could all be transferred to a University on the coast as part of a marine biology degree. After two years, at age 22, I was approaching the end of the SLCC biology-related courses, and I mentioned to a family friend that I wanted to find a job near a university where I could study marine biology.
It was September of 1988 and my friend was in charge of a small business and offered to help write my resume, print it on high-quality paper with a cover letter, and send it to several companies on the West Coast. One of the companies called me for an interview, and after the second phone call, I was hired by Johnson and Johnson out of Santa Barbara.
Within three months of deciding to look for a job and pursue the next phase of my journey, I was packing up my tiny Mazda with everything I could squeeze in it, and driving to California. I didn’t know it then, but that experience of imagining something that seemed out of my reach, sharing my vision with someone, then taking steps to achieve it, and then that vision coming true was a lesson in the power of clear intention.
I became a marine biologist
On New Year’s Eve, I arrived in Santa Barbara after driving straight through from Salt Lake City. Upon my arrival, I discovered that the friend-of-a-friend with whom I was supposed to stay, was evicted during the winter break for not paying rent.
I drove around to several motels trying to find a place to stay, but they were all booked for the holiday. Eventually, I pulled into a parking lot and slept in my car for the weekend. Monday was my first day of work so I snuck into the pool at a Motel 6 to “shower,” dress, and comb my hair for work. Not the best of beginnings to this adventure, but I managed to show up on time!
I had to spend my first year establishing residency as out-of-state tuition was quite expensive. After that, I was able to take a course or two each semester at Santa Barbara Community College. After two years I found a new job, this time at a Danish biotech Company called DAKO, and I really excelled there. They also had a program that allowed me to go to college part-time and also reimbursed the costs for my biology-related courses.
I finally felt I had found my way, and my dream of becoming a marine biologist seemed within reach. After applying for grants and student loans, I matriculated into the University of California Santa Barbara and it was there that I learned so much, not just about marine biology, but about our entire planet. After seven years, I finally completed my degree. I had reached my goal and was enjoying the wonderful people and company where I worked, and, more than anything, loved living next to the ocean and diving in the splendor of the undersea world as often as I could.
The following summer I began to try to find a job in marine biology, but none of them felt right for me. Being a fisheries officer didn’t seem appealing, nor did being a lab assistant for a professor (I tried that, but it was quite tedious). I couldn’t even get an interview at places like SeaWorld or the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Then, I heard a question on a Tony Robbins tape I had purchased: “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” he asked. “The answer that rings true in your heart is probably what you should be doing.”
After sitting with that question for several months, I finally found my answer. It evolved and grew as each answer didn’t turn out to be big enough (after all, “I couldn’t fail”). At first, it was “working with sharks at an aquarium,” then “designing aquatic exhibits,” then “building a public aquarium,” then finally building several aquariums throughout the nation and launching a research ship that would go on expeditions around the world (like Cousteau). I decided that through these efforts, I would inspire tens of millions of people to learn about our planet and see the beauty and magnificence of life.
I wanted people to experience all the ecosystems: marine, freshwater, rain forests, deserts, temperate forests, and the arctic regions. I wanted them to see this amazing and wonderful miracle of life and connect to it, and understand that it is all part of one intricately connected global ecosystem, the Living Planet, and indeed to see that we humans are not separate from, but are a part of that ecosystem. I wanted them to see what I saw, that everything is connected as one.
With that vision in mind, I began to research how aquariums were designed and how they were built. I visited every aquatic center and aquarium, large and small, in California, Hawaii, Florida, and Baltimore. I took photos, drew diagrams, and reconstructed on paper everything I could from visitor pathways, to tank sizes and themes, to ticket entryways, gift shops, and food courts. I was able to get behind-the-scenes tours at some places and was able to interview some of the key managers of others. I even met with one of the designers for the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
After months of refining the designs for the first aquarium, I finally had something that could work―all I needed was a location. The natural place for me to begin was in Santa Barbara but I needed to find a location. Having been to the Santa Barbara Zoo many times, I was aware of a large 1.5-acre grassy area that seemed to have been reserved for a new exhibit. I put together a plan and sent it to the director and founder of the Zoo, Ted McToldridge.
I received a call back within a week and he said he would be willing to meet with me. The idea I proposed was too large for the available space (not to mention the cost) but he asked if I could help him finish a new series of freshwater species exhibits. I was excited by the opportunity and within a week I was showing up to work on the exhibits in the evenings from 5:30-10 PM each night.
It was a little strange to be the only one working so late, other than the security guard. Many times, as I walked on the pathway in the dark I was petrified as I heard the male lion roaring thunderously. Those powerful roars sharpened my mind, quickened my heart and instincts, and after understanding I was safe and the lion hadn’t escaped, I realized how alive I was, how wonderful it felt to be doing what I loved.
What I didn’t know then, but realized later, was that Ted McToldridge was taking me under his wing. He was reaching down to give me a hand up as a mentor. I spent many meetings with him, learning and asking questions, hearing about his story, how he had started the Zoo, and many of the challenges and obstacles he faced.
Another mentor was the CEO of DAKO, the biotech firm I worked at. As busy as Viggo Harboe was, he took time to meet with me and to offer guidance. He is the one who told me “A nonprofit may be your tax designation, but it is not your business strategy.” Those meetings may have been brief, but they meant the world to me. I was infused with confidence because someone who I viewed as so knowledgeable, successful, and important, actually saw me as important enough to acknowledge, help, and encourage.
A dream and the threat of bankruptcy
In 1996, my best friend Russ Groomer and his wife came to visit me on vacation from Salt Lake City. I shared my entire idea for building aquariums and, as an entrepreneur himself, he was supportive. He suggested Salt Lake City as a possible location but I didn’t really consider it―not until two weeks later when he called to tell me he had arranged a meeting with his developer friends in two weeks’ time to talk about a new project called Thanksgiving Point.
I had to decide if I was going to just safely dream from afar or jump in. I decided to jump. My mentors also encouraged me by saying that the worst thing that could happen was to fail after a few years and then I would come right back to restart the career path I was on in biotechnology.
After meeting with the developers and with Thanksgiving Point, I discovered that finding funding for an aquarium would require a feasibility study at a cost of around $30,000―half of which would need to be given first as a deposit to begin the study. The good news was that Thanksgiving Point was willing to contribute half, so long as I came up with the other half.
This made sense―if I wasn’t willing to risk anything why would anyone else? The problem was I only had a few hundred dollars saved. It was Tuesday evening when I drove back home, but when I opened my mail the following day, there was a cash advance offer of up to $5,000 from my credit card company. I usually threw these away due to the high interest rate, but this time I saw it as one of those metaphorical doors of opportunity that occasionally open.
With that, I asked for the generosity of others, and Paul Taggart and Peter Cook committed to the rest of the feasibility study deposit, and Alan and Karen Ashton said they would contribute to the remainder of the study when it was completed. Within sixty days, the study was underway, and I gave notice that I was leaving my job to pursue my dream. I felt sure that the study would come back positive and moved back to Salt Lake City without a backup plan, leaving myself no option but to continue to swim.
The study, when completed, contained the prevailing wisdom of the day that for a major aquarium to succeed it must be located in a metropolitan downtown location. I was very disheartened as I thought it would be so much more difficult to find and afford enough land in a downtown location. But without a supportive study, it would be difficult to raise the funds for a suburban location.
After announcing the plan to build an aquarium in downtown Salt Lake City, the daunting and increasingly difficult task of finding funds for the venture began. There were a dozen or so early supporters (Richard Prows, Marilyn Brumfield, Jeff Flamm, to name a few) who donated funds towards the effort (I marvel now that they had such vision and faith in me, as I was completely inexperienced―not unlike a bumblebee, which according to the laws of physics shouldn’t be able to fly).
The Aquarium was based on a foundation of teaching people, especially students. So in November 1988, I initiated the Living Planet’s first education program, the Aquavan.
The biotech company I worked for in Santa Barbara had a program where the scientists would teach science for two days each year at a local elementary school. There were a few of us who had marine biology degrees, so one year we set up saltwater touch tanks at the elementary school, filled with urchins, sea stars, sea cucumbers, barnacles, crabs, and even an octopus.
The teachers wrote us letters about how great an impact that program had on those students. So when I moved to Utah, I did the same thing here. The Clark Foundation funded the expenses and we partnered with Pleasant Grove Junior High to put the animal holding tanks in Evan Whitaker’s science classroom. From this first home, we sent the Aquavan to classrooms around the state.
Though the education programs were expanding and thriving, funds for the Aquarium building were scarce. We tried just about everything: we held meetings with foundations, city and county officials, we held fundraising galas, hosted golf tournaments and festivals. While all of these helped to keep the idea alive, the $50 million needed to build a large-scale aquarium was not coming to fruition. Every few months the account balance would dip to nearly zero and the storm clouds of personal bankruptcy became impossible not to see.
To keep those clouds at a distance, I kept receiving cash advance checks from the many personal credit cards I applied for and managed to use the funds to pay the monthly payment on the prior card’s balance―as well as pay for office rent, utilities, and other expenses. But by November 2003 the credit card companies had caught on and the cards and cash advances stopped coming.
I was deeply in debt by now and the dream was fading. It was disheartening and becoming more of a burden just to keep the dream alive than the joy it used to be. I began to think about giving up. I had tried everything I could think of, but it wasn’t enough.
Building the Aquarium
Everybody was skeptical. They said, “Great, you have a marine biology degree, but you’ve never built a business and you have certainly never built an aquarium. So explain how you are going to accomplish this again.” I get the skepticism―it’s totally valid. Those first years were just trying to get somebody to believe enough to fund the project.
I tried for five years until I realized that the large 90,000 square foot aquarium wasn’t going to be funded if I kept doing the same thing. I decided to change my approach and designed and found funds for a much smaller concept aquarium. The newly opened Gateway mall downtown agreed to let us use a 10,000 square-foot space rent-free for two years. With generous sponsors and a $100,000 loan, we built a small aquarium for $300,000. We worked 18 hours a day for four months until we opened in June of 2004.
From the moment we opened our doors, we had lines out the door every weekend with a half-hour wait to get in―and that started showing donors and politicians that there was indeed public demand for an aquarium in the desert. We were attracting 150,000 people a year and thriving. Then after a year and a half, The Gateway sold and our rent wasn’t free anymore. We had to decide whether to stay or move.
I couldn’t find a building downtown that was affordable but did find a place in Sandy. Some people thought it was a bad idea to move away from downtown, but I followed my instincts, and they proved right. We built out a new aquarium, moving everything from the old one (no easy task by the way). We opened once again to great success. In our first year, we nearly doubled our attendance with over 250,000 visitors. I also started to gain some confidence and realized that maybe I was better at this than I was giving myself credit for.
We kept growing in that location right through the recession of 2008-2011. We learned that even when times are difficult, people still have children that want to get out of the house and do things as a family. The Aquarium became part of many families’ “staycation” and we just kept on growing.
At one point, a foundation director who had once thought that “an aquarium will never work,” had his granddaughter come up to him and tell him, “We need to help fund the aquarium, I take the kids there every weekend and they love it!” He changed his mind and joined the cause, later telling me this story with a wonderful smile.
Another donor, unbeknownst to me, was reviewing all the progress updates and data I kept sending out. One Christmas they came to me and said, “We know that the plan is for a world-class aquarium, we have seen the steady progress and growth over the years, and would like to help by providing the lead gift for that vision.” That was the Loveland Foundation, and that lead gift opened the doors to donations for the Loveland Living Planet Aquarium.
In 2012, we broke ground and opened in March 2014 with 136,000 square feet―more than 50 percent larger than my original plan. With nearly one million visitors per year, education programs that reach every elementary school in the state, still a few more aquariums to build (and a research ship to launch), I am very grateful for everything and for everyone who has and is making it all possible.
I have also learned an important lesson about success and failure. While luck plays a part with effort, tenacity, passion and skill, sometimes they are not enough to succeed, and failure can still be the result of even the best plans and effort. But, in the end, there are only two guaranteed ways to fail: One is to never begin and the other is to quit.
A dream realized
There are now more than 160 employees at the Loveland Living Planet Aquarium, and I often picture us as working together in a kind of magical forge―a large space in which the air sparkles and shimmers with the energy of creativity and learning. We are all there, working together to transform new exhibit ideas and educational programs into reality. And when I allow myself to see and hear what is happening, what is manifesting, I’m filled with joy.
I feel it when I walk through the galleries, closing my eyes to listen to the enthusiastic curiosity of a young child who is beaming with energy and unbridled excitement, asking their parents questions and telling them about the animals, the nature they see, and the connections they are making. There is nothing more beautiful to me than hearing a child experience the magic of life, the wonder of exploration, and the joy of discovery.
Just as I once did when my grandmother first gave me The Sea.