Last December, Bert Vescolani was named the president and chief executive of the Saint Louis Science Center. He takes over an institution and attraction that has drawn more than a million people each year, making it the fourth largest science center in the U.S. The 47-year-old Michigan native is rolling up his sleeves for some hard work ahead. The Science Center’s revenue is more than $26 million a year, but it’s attempting to cut spending by more than $2 million in the next 18 months. Vescolani is dealing with the realities of a smaller budget, while at the same time, hoping to make significant improvements. He recently took time out of his schedule to talk with LN about what he has in mind.
LN: What’s your general impression of St. Louis so far?
BV: I absolutely love it! St. Louis doesn’t brag as much as Chicago, but this town has so many phenomenal resources. The people have been very warm and honest. They’ve told me what they think we need to change, and I’ve appreciated that openness.
LN: You’re a former high school science teacher, how did that prepare you for the role you’re in now?
BV: I did a lot of labs and a lot of activities outside the classroom, so I was able to have a little bit of freedom that way and experiment and try new things.
LN: Do you see the Science Center as a kind of giant cool classroom?
BV: Do you remember that favorite teacher in your favorite classroom with your favorite stuff? That ‘cool teacher’ is really a neat thing for the Science Center to be. We take ourselves seriously—but not too seriously—to make sure our content and science are sound and valid, but at the same time, have fun with it. We want to make it exciting and facilitate that constant striving for knowledge.
LN: You’ve been recognized for your leadership skills at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago and for making innovative updates when you ran the Grand Rapids Zoo. Do you see similar changes ahead at the Science Center?
BV:We really need to tackle these exhibits. We have some that have been here since the Science Center opened, and although there are some cool aspects to them, they really need to be refreshed. After my arrival, we started aggressively looking for what we could do quickly, what we can do effectively and what things need a longer-term plan. So you’ll see some new things, but we’re also bringing back some of the favorites that were icons at the Science Center, like the tesla coil that makes giant bolts of electricity and a lot of great noise—it was a favorite.
LN: For my generation, the Science Center was the planetarium. Are there plans to update that, as well?
BV: Absolutely. We have the 50th anniversary of the planetarium coming up next year, so we want to have some plans in place. For instance, there is a device that displays the stars in a different way—not only does it make them come digitally alive, but also uses video in ways you’ve never seen before. So, we’re investigating those kinds of opportunities. They’re not cheap, it costs money to do those kinds of things, but it would allow us to expand our offerings and to provide a richer content for our shows and presentations.
LN: With money so tight, how do you do more with less money?
BV:You just have to do things smarter, every business is faced with that, right? You have to create new ways of working internally: how you work in teams and how you tackle projects together. We’re working on a little shift in the culture.
LN: We like to think of our Science Center as one of the best, but is it possible to make it truly world-class?
BV: I really want us to be one of the best in the world. I feel we have many of the components that can help us get there. And the resources in town—besides Emerson, Boeing and Monsanto and all these great science-based organizations, we also have all of these amazing universities. So, I think our future is incredibly bright!
LN: OK, now let’s get into the controversial issues: You spent many years in Chicago, are you a Cubs fan?
BV: I started out on the south side of Chicago, so I was more of a Sox fan. I am quickly becoming a St. Louis fan for all the teams. I will give you one exception: I will always be a Michigan State fan, a Spartan through and through. So as long Missouri and Michigan State are in the Final Four, it’s not a problem I can root for both. But when they come together, I’ll have to show my alliance to my college!