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Shedd Aquarium: Celebrating curiosity, compassion, and conservation

May 13, 2024 Case Study 4 min read
For nearly 100 years, Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium has welcomed millions to learn about the wonders of our blue planet. Its operations are complex, vast, and lifesaving. Here’s how they count on us to support the ecosystems that count on them.
Exterior of the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago.©Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez Have you ever imagined what it would be like being a deep-sea diver, floating underwater alongside curious tropical fish? Or being eye to eye with a beluga whale? Have you wondered how the world’s aquatic life is being preserved for future generations? Those who do come far and wide to visit our client, Shedd Aquarium — the jewel of Chicago’s waterfront.

The vision for the midwestern connection to the seven seas came from its namesake, Mr. John G. Shedd, one of America’s pioneering retailers. He imagined a stately marble building featuring a collection of aquatic animals from around the world that would inspire and amaze people in Chicago and the Greater Illinois area. With an initial donation of $2 million, the not-for-profit Shedd Aquarium Society was founded a century ago — the same year, in fact, that Elorion Plante opened the doors of a small accounting firm in Detroit, Mich. Construction on the aquarium began the next year, and the facility opened its doors to throngs of guests on May 30, 1930.

Today, Shedd Aquarium has grown beyond its founder’s wildest dreams: It’s a national historic landmark that welcomes 2 million guests a year. In addition to an unforgettable experience for visitors, its work includes animal care, conservation, research, and educational opportunities for people of all ages. Its research partnerships span the globe, with projects in the Bahamas, Central America, Indonesia, and Australia. Shedd has 400 full-time staff, many part-time staff, and a large volunteer base that tend to the 32,000 animals in its care and keep its operations running.

What most guests don’t get to see is the busy beehive operating behind the scenes. According to Gary Gordon, Shedd Aquarium’s chief financial and administrative officer, there’s an entire behind-the-scenes village that includes a working hospital suite that helps train veterinarians, a “live foods” area where foods are grown for the animals, and a water lab that tests and helps maintain the chemistry of the various water habitats. “At every moment, 24 hours a day, there’s somebody there making sure the systems are running properly and the animals are well cared for,” he says.

Supporting all of this is another village — the financial office where the heartbeat of the business takes place, without which, there would be no operation. While Shedd Aquarium is a not-for-profit organization, it’s also very much a business, and the back-office operation is vast, says Gordon.

“There are all sorts of compliance matters, whether it’s USDA or the transport of animals or inspections and accreditation. We have a research vessel on the water that has Coast Guard requirements. It takes an incredibly diverse team to manage the ‘business of the business.’” And as Shedd’s trusted advisor, we help them do that by keeping them abreast of financial and grant compliance matters that impact their organization.

Like most organizations that have been in existence for 100 years, its leaders tend to be forward-looking and focus on long-term decisions.

“We’re coming up on our 100th anniversary, and we’re mindful of our responsibility to ensure we’re here for another 100 years,” says Gordon. “We’re making long-term financial decisions to ensure longevity of our organization and to play our part in protecting the planet for the next millennia — everything we do impacts long into the future.”

To maintain that longevity, Gordon is responsible for ensuring efficiency in Shedd’s financial operations. Shedd Aquarium’s complex business needs call for advisors with a full range of skills, unique industry experience, and a team-oriented, can-do attitude.

“One of the things that I’ve really appreciated about working with Plante Moran is the continuity the team brings, and their ‘let’s work together approach,’” says Gordon. “It’s helpful to have a group that knows our business and practices, understands what’s behind the numbers, and is a ready resource that I can proactively reach out to.”

He also appreciates Plante Moran’s deep involvement with other cultural institutions in Chicago.

“We share a lot of the same issues and questions. Having Plante Moran’s broader experience and understanding of not just Shedd Aquarium in Chicago — but other significant cultural institutions — has been really helpful and a benefit that’s unique to Plante Moran,” says Gordon.

If John G. Shedd saw his creation today, he’d be awestruck by how the aquarium has grown and overwhelmingly proud to see his name still etched into the organization that’s doing so much good in the world. And as we mark our centennial, Elorion Plante and Frank Moran would be equally proud to see the organization they created helping to support an institution that’s had an indelible impact on so many — and will continue to well into the future. 

"It’s helpful to have a group that knows our business and practices, understands what’s behind the numbers, and is a ready resource that I can proactively reach out to."

— Gary Gordon, Chief Financial and Administrative Officer, Shedd Aquarium

Our legacy is 100 years in the making — and that’s why you can count on us. 

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