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Aquarium secures future with investments, reserves and staff updates

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Howlite is one of the many turtles raised at the S.C. Aquarium. (Photo/Provided)

Jason Oddo’s three-year-old daughter thinks her dad is a hero.

His cape comes in the form of South Carolina Aquarium CFO — the guy who helps to finance the turtles and the fish. His job makes for a pretty amazing day when visiting Dad at his office overlooking the Cooper River.

Throughout the last two years, the community has watched closely as the aquarium weathered a tumultuous time, shutting down to the public for three months and losing funding from events and diminished donations. Re-opening then came with added restrictions of limited attendance, required masks and general fears from visitors about being in a public indoor space.

The fear that the Sea Turtle Care Center could shutter because of the pandemic hit too close to home for some community members — people who see the aquarium as a pillar of the state. In a month’s time, supporters came together and raised $1.6 million. The center stayed open without missing a beat, all while taking in 43 patients this year and 338 to date.

“The community has really stuck behind us during this time, and their support has been huge,” Oddo said. “You know, we entered this pandemic and were really unsure of our financial future.”

To survive the downturn, the aquarium tightened its budget, enacted loss mitigation measures and adjusted staffing levels and payroll with a new invoice processing system, budgeting system and customer relationship management system. Each of these improvements will help improve forecasting and budgeting in the future, Oddo said.

The organization additionally deferred projects and other costs throughout the last two years, focusing only on critical costs.

“We budgeted extremely conservative revenues,” Oddo said. “But then, fast forward to today as we’re starting to navigate out this pandemic, and we find ourselves in a healthier financial position due to those financial mitigation measures and to the support of the community.”

Like the aquarium’s fan-favorite shark divers, Oddo had to plunge into the deep end when he took on the CFO role in July — replacing Juan-Pablo Mancia, who stepped down in the spring. Oddo had 20 years of financial experience, but Charleston and the aquarium, in a pandemic, were new territory.

A Clemson University graduate and a Connecticut native, Oddo spent more than a decade in New York as the senior director of finance for BSE Global, where his career centered around the sports and entertainment industry — in particular working for the New Jersey Nets, which later moved to Brooklyn. He then transitioned to a role with the New York City Economic Development Corp. before moving to Charleston in July.

“I thought my experience with nonprofits, governments, sports and the entertainment industry would be a good fit for the aquarium,” Oddo said. “Later on, I’d also discover that my values aligned with the aquarium’s mission.”

In particular, Oddo liked how the aquarium is committed to conservation, education and resiliency — something he focused on immensely in the months after he started.

As the nation tentatively comes out of the pandemic, Oddo intends to build the aquarium’s reserves to protect its financial future. The aquarium has always operated at a deficit, he added, and now is the time to right the ship and be good stewards of the money.

He credits the community with helping build up those reserves, whether it was through fundraising or earned revenues and attendance.

“Determining the reserve levels is really challenging, but the positive of this pandemic is really that we kind of have real data now to determine what our needs are for the aquarium during a distressed period,” he said.

Exploring new opportunities and revenue streams will be another challenge. Currently, Aquarium Aglow, a special ticketed event, is running through Jan. 2. The all-new holiday display will open the aquarium doors in the evening and will feature thousands of different light exhibits. Think coral chandeliers, a 30-foot holiday tree and a hall of lights.

Another financial focus for Oddo will be maximizing the aquarium’s investment growth potential. The CFO is in the process of modifying the aquarium’s investment policy and developing a new investment strategy.

“We’ve already identified some strategic initiatives that will increase our long-term sustainability and the establishment of a solid investment strategy will put us in position to really realize it,” Oddo said.

Heading into 2022, Oddo remains optimistically cautious, hoping things go back to normal rather than surviving month-to-month, but also keenly aware that another threat could happen.

 “Our priorities in 2022 really are to take care of our staff, address the deferred projects and establish reserves in order to ensure protection against any unexpected events,” he said.

The aquarium is open seven days a week, with educational and other programming. While field trips stopped in March 2020, interest is starting to pique again.

Staff fatigue is real, and Oddo hopes to limit burn out with professional development, shifting schedules for extra time off and adjusting staffing levels.

“My job is going in and helping my team, everyone keep a close eye on our spending and make sure that our budget is as neat as possible, which historically we’ve done a great job doing,” Oddo said.

Reach Teri Errico Griffis at 843-849-3144.

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