Bob Pilz has a passion so deep for exotic animals that he had to share it with others. Thus, Sustainable Safari was created in 2019 as an interactive animal experience in Maplewood Mall, featuring more than 25 unique species such as emus, lemurs, armadillos, greater grison and red kangaroos. Safari Bob, along with his wife, Mishelle, have a mission to help others to learn about the animals and their natural habitats so people will be compelled to make more sustainable choices to ensure a healthy planet where all creatures can thrive.
But they couldn’t do it alone. They brought in Dave Harvey as a partner, who brought with him business experience from many years in the banking industry. Together, the Pilzes and Dave have cultivated a team to bring the Sustainable Safari vision to life.
After kicking off a partnership in early 2022, we caught up with Safari Bob and Dave to talk about what they’ve learned through starting the business and advice for others who are building businesses based on values.
For those not familiar with Sustainable Safari, describe what it is and what you do.
Dave: Sustainable Safari is an immersive, interactive and educational animal experience. When you’re here, you can pet, feed and, in some cases, hold the animals. You’re fully immersed.
Safari Bob: And that’s just part of Sustainable Safari. We want people to learn more about these animals and to be aware of how their choices as a consumer affect these animals’ habitats. We’re educating our guests on sustainable practices and how to care for the environment. We hope their interaction with the animals will help make a connection and a greater impact for change.
The animals are all really cute! What sets your business apart from zoos or other animal exhibits, and how do you communicate that important message to consumers?
Dave: Our points of differentiation are the ability to interact with the animals, and our education initiatives. There are very few places where you can hold an alligator and then turn around and feed capybaras and sit right next to the animals. In addition, our safari guides provide educational opportunities for guests about not only the animals, but also about sustainability. We’re adding more sustainability programming in the coming months to continue living out our mission. The goal of these is to help visitors see that what they do locally to help the environment has a ripple effect that impacts the natural habitats of the animals they learn about here at Sustainable Safari.
Safari Bob: The animal interaction makes us unique, but we also have a natural passion for offering those interactions with the intent that it turns into a purpose – inspiring people to make sustainable choices for the betterment of all creatures. I hope the experiences people have here impact them to change for good.
How do you make sure your business stays true to its values?
Dave: We have regular board meetings, with our mission at the center. That’s our true North Star, and we make sure every decision is congruent with the vision and mission. We bring in outside perspectives to keep us all aligned. One example of how we live our value of sustainability is that 95% of products we use here are recyclable or biodegradable. Cardboard for bedding is an environmentally friendly way to keep the animals dry and comfortable, our feeding cups are cornstarch, making them biodegradable and the souvenir stuffed animals sold are made from recycled plastic.
Safari Bob: We developed our mission based on our personal values and how we live our lives. We want to be true to ourselves and bring that out in our business. It’s who we are.
You both have vastly different backgrounds. Why do you think it’s important to have people of differing experiences partner together for businesses?
Safari Bob: I knew my faults from the beginning. In order to pull off what we were trying to do, it wasn’t going to happen with me at the helm. I’m not a detail-oriented or business-focused person. I am the guy swinging the hammer, being creative and thinking outside the box. I needed someone to tell me how to run it. That’s what Dave brings to the table.
Dave: I think our partnership works because we both have the passion. Bob’s got an amazing creative mind. On my side of the business, I love spreadsheets, numbers and geeking out on that stuff. I like to see from a mathematical perspective how everything ties together. In a business such as this where its attraction-based and there needs to be so much creativity, I think it would be a rare individual that would have the skillset to have both sides of it, and do both sides well. We collaborate and also respect each other’s expertise, knowing when to let the other run with an idea. When you have the right partner, you can use your strengths to help the business grow and thrive.
We know you have spent a lot of time and energy thinking about who you are and what you want to do as a business over the past two years. What did that process look like for you, and what are tips you can share for people who are in a similar position of launching a business?
Dave: Give yourself flexibility with your plan. What we have here is not what we had originally dreamed up. If our original plan would have panned out, we would have missed out on the biggest piece that makes Sustainable Safari what it is – the immersive interaction with the animals. And it’s turned out fantastic. A lot of the worries we had – or thought we were going to have – never ended up being a worry. And sometimes those things that make you lose sleep at night can actually end up being an asset. Look at every opportunity, and be open to lots of ideas.
Safari Bob: Of course, it took a lot of work to get to this point – starting a business isn’t easy or for the faint of heart. You have to want to work and live the passion. As we found early on, things won’t always work out. So, keep going. When you fail, get up and go again. And, it might just end up even better than you’d imagined.
What’s brewing for you and Sustainable Safari?
Safari Bob: I want to make a positive change in the world. We are doing that here locally but are constantly thinking of how we can do that on a bigger scale.
Dave: We are making major renovations and will have new animals coming soon, including two sloths. We also have a newly designed bird exhibit. In the next couple months, we will be incorporating new technology into our business to help us continue growing and sharing our message of sustainability.