When Jim Dean was a teenager riding the Zippin Pippin at Libertyland, he never dreamed
he would one day be in charge of one of the largest and most popular adventure parks
in the world — Busch Gardens in Tampa Bay, Fla. These days if he wants to ride a roller
coaster, it is a short walk from his office to one of the eight stomach-dropping,
heart-pounding coasters inside the amusement park.
Dean (BSET ’80), who will be Memphis this month to receive the Herff College of Engineering’s
2012 Outstanding Alumni Award, says his "ride" to Busch Gardens’ top position has
been an adventure in itself. After graduating from Memphis’ Bishop Byrne High School,
he chose to attend the school where Larry Finch was one of his idols.
"When I joined the University of Memphis, then Memphis State University, like most
freshmen, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do in my life," Dean says. "I had
given very little thought to my future, but I knew that I enjoyed it there and that
I would figure it out."
|Busch Gardens has experienced rapid growth under U of M alumnus Jim Dean. The park
offers world-class thrill rides, spectacular shows, and is home to 2,000 animals.
A friend suggested he try engineering technology.
"I was comforted in the knowledge that most of the College of Engineering graduates
were securing very good jobs upon graduation and that was important," he says.
Dean notes that while at the U of M, he learned something that would serve him well
later in his career.
"I realized that to be successful, you had to be accountable for your work and proud
of what you accomplish. I can’t point to who or what instilled that belief in me at
the Herff College of Engineering, but I know that I graduated with that attitude."
Dean says the best advice he ever received came from his college adviser.
"He told me to say ‘yes’ to every opportunity and to go to every job interview I could
get on campus." Dean did just that and was offered two jobs after graduation, including
the one he decided on: engineer at McDonnell Douglas in St. Louis.
He says that decision landed him on the "roller coaster" path he is on today. While
working at McDonnell Douglas, he earned his master’s degree in finance at Saint Louis
University and later went to work for Anheuser Busch in finance for its theme park
The "ride" then took him to London, where he worked for Anheuser’s beer division.
"It was a wonderful experience to explore Europe for five years and learn how to sell
beer in 44 different countries and work out the finances in all their different currencies,"
Dean says. "I was able to learn from our employees from all over the world."
When Dean came back to the U.S., he oversaw the finance, merchandise and culinary
food operations for all of Anheuser Busch’s theme parks and from there moved to his
current position as president of Busch Gardens. The theme of the 335-acre amusement
park is exotic adventures from around the world and offers a unique combination of
rides, entertainment and up-close animal encounters in areas based upon African countries
such as Morocco and Egypt. The park is also home to 2,000 animals, with more than
200 different species represented.
Busch Gardens has experienced rapid growth under Dean, who keeps a constant eye on
the future. "Thanks to ‘Cheetah Hunt,’ we had a tremendous year," he says. "But new
attractions take years to build and right now we are planning for 2015. My focus is
to continue to make the park an exciting place for visitors." Cheetah Hunt is a world-class
roller coaster that mimics a cheetah chasing its prey at speeds of up to 60 miles
While Dean continues to follow the Memphis Tigers on the field and on the court, he
has tigers of a different kind close to him now. There are nine Bengal and two Malayan
tigers that live in the Jungala section at the park. In his role as president, he
helps initiate and support wildlife conservation, research and education, and he is
on the board of the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens Conservation Fund.
While Dean was a student at the U of M, he appreciated the personal attention he received
in his classes and remembers how those personal connections helped him throughout
"There have been many other lessons learned in my career and many mentors to thank,
but an important part of my success began at the University of Memphis and at the
Herff College of Engineering," Dean says. — by Marcy Sanford