Chester Zoo is one of the most respected zoos in the world, with a fine reputation for its work in the field of conservation.

Its founder, George Mottershead conceived, developed and established the zoo, despite facing what most people would think were insurmountable barriers.

Why?  Because he had a simple vision that drove him inexorably towards success.

What lessons can the rest of us learn from this and how can we apply these lessons to our own business?  Let’s look at what influenced George and how he used these influences to achieve so much.

How it all started

George Mottershead was born in Sale, in the North West of England, in 1894.  His parents often took him and his two younger brothers and sister to an amusement park which also featured a zoo.  He loved the animals, but amongst his fascination at seeing them, he felt a lot of compassion for them, being held in cages to be stared at by people.

At the age of nine, he said to his father “When I have a zoo, it won’t have any bars”.

It is very rare for 10 words to produce such a profound impact on the lives of many people – and animals.

Why is it so powerful?  There are several elements to what makes it work:

  1. It defined what he wanted to do in life – be involved with a zoo.
  2. It set out that he would start something himself (“When I have a zoo”) not work in somebody else’s zoo.
  3. It defined how he wanted it to be “without any bars”.

The barriers

As with most people, events in his life then played a part and he had to wait some time for his dream to be fulfilled.  In 1910, at the age of 16, he left home and became a fitness instructor.  The early entrepreneurial spirit that he had displayed in talking about his vision for a zoo soon surfaced and he formed his own gym.

Like so many of his generation he enlisted in the army and went off to France in the First World War.  He endured the heartache of losing his two younger brothers and he was paralysed in the Battle of the Somme in 1916 with a bullet in his back.  Doctors said that he would never walk again but his immense determination, (no doubt helped by his work as a fitness instructor) led him to disprove this prognosis.

A year later he had the first of two children and moved out to the countryside on the advice of doctors to continue his recuperation as cities were smoke-filled places in those days.

The early stages of the zoo

Again, the entrepreneur in him came out and he opened a market garden and florist shop.  His shop was popular when he started selling pet birds, which was the first outlet for his lifelong love of animals.  He started rescuing animals, imported into the country by forming a relationship with customs officers at the docks or taking animals abandoned or mistreated by circuses.

At first these were a private collection, but he realised that it would be good for his business if he could display them at what was now known as Oakfield Zoological Gardens.  It became so popular that a new bus service cropped up to handle all the visitors.

In the days before television and extensive travel, most people had few opportunities to experience animals.

Stepping up a gear George decided he had to get bigger premises and stumbled across the Oakfield estate in Upton-by-Chester, which was a very large house built by a Tea Merchant in nine acre grounds.

At last, the concept of a zoo without bars could take shape.  George set about adapting the house, the outbuildings and the grounds, physically doing much of the work himself.

It was not plain sailing though.  Local people thought that it was wrong to have wild animals in their area, because it would lower the tone.  They objected, which caused an initial rejection of planning permission.  Having borrowed a lot of money to purchase the estate, George had a financial imperative as well as a determination to continue with his plans.  He had to compound his financial difficulties by hiring an expensive barrister but finally won his planning permission and opened Chester Zoo in April 1931.

Even then, as all business owners and managers know, the path of a business is rarely smooth.  He had to make it work financially.  This meant strong marketing and constant expansion of the facilities so that people would come back frequently.

There was a wonderful scene in the BBC series in which George was dictating a letter to the Council (while his wife typed) to try and convince them to grant permission.  He used the phrase “people could come and see animals from all over the world” and then changed it to “exotic creatures from all over the world”.

That is simply brilliant marketing and demonstrates why George Mottershead was successful.

He died in 1978, having seen his dream come true and succeed.  If he were to return today he would find it thriving and with an admirable reputation – still based upon his original vision.  He would no doubt have something constructive to contribute to the marketing in the modern context because he truly understood the very essence of marketing, entrepreneurialism and business.

What can we learn from George Mottershead?  There are lessons we can learn from George:

  1. The simpler your vision, the better. It helps you to see the wood from the trees.
  2. You need drive and focus to start a venture and see it through.
  3. You need to work hard and have stamina.  All successful business people tell the same story.
  4. You need courage of your convictions.  Without it you will not have the will to take the hundreds or thousands of small steps needed to achieve your goals.
  5. You need to market your idea.  It is not just a case of “build it and they will come”.

George Mottershead was a humane person who cared about the animals and his visitors.  He had a simple vision that he turned into reality and made it work as a business.  He is a perfect role model for people in business – in any era.  He knew precisely what he and his business stood for.

Business Tip:

Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Is it clear what my business stands for?
  2. Do the words we use to describe the business on our website, on promotional literature and the things we say, reflect this vision?

If you cannot answer YES to both of these questions, you need to reconsider your vision and mission.

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