Charlie Arant didn't have a pet goldfish as a kid. He's not much of a fisherman, either.
It was Arant's business and marketing experience that convinced the Tennessee Aquarium's Board of Trustees to hire him in 1995 as the president and CEO of the then-3-year-old aquarium on the Tennessee River.
Tennessee Aquarium milestones
During Charlie Arant’s tenure as president and CEO of the Tennessee Aquarium, the institution marked several milestones.
› Opens the IMAX 3-D Theater in 1996
› Conservation Institute established in 1996
› Aquarium’s education department launches regional outreach programs in 1997
› Education department is accredited by Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) in 2001. (The Aquarium remains the only zoo or aquarium accredited as a Special Purpose School.)
› Opening of Ocean Journey, the aquarium’s second building, in 2005
› Launch of the River Gorge Explorer in 2008
› Aquarium receives the National Medal from the Institute of Museum and Library Services in 2009
› Announcement in October 2015 of a permanent facility for the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute on the Baylor School campus
Source: Tennessee Aquarium
"They were looking for a business person to run the aquarium. They wanted it run like a business," said Arant, 75, who announced his retirement Monday.
These days, the aquarium is widely credited as the spark that led to the renaissance of downtown Chattanooga. But in the beginning, doubters feared the pioneering attraction in the then-depressed downtown would flop and taxpayers would be on the hook to keep it alive.
So the trustees chose Arant, who had worked for 28 years at IBM, to take the helm. Revenue has covered the aquarium's operating expenses all of these years.
"We don't take a dime of public money," Arant said. "We operate like a for-profit business."
Fundraising has helped the aquarium increase its size and scope.
With Arant on board, the aquarium opened its IMAX theater, built its second building, Ocean Journey, and launched the River Gorge Explorer boat that takes passengers up the scenic Tennessee River Gorge.
"You have to have new stuff and new things to see," Arant said.
The aquarium's latest project is the Tennessee Aquarium Freshwater Conservation Institute, to be housed in a $4.5 million structure under construction on the Baylor School campus. Its programs will include raising fish such as lake sturgeon and brook trout for release into the wild.
"I think [the aquarium's] future is equally as exciting as the past," said Arant, who praised the aquarium's workers as the "envy" of the aquarium world.
"It makes my job easy with this kind of staff," he said.
Praise for Arant came from Bill Sudderth, who was a longtime friend and partner in the Chattanooga Land Co. with Jack Lupton, the late billionaire Chattanooga philanthropist who championed and helped fund the aquarium.
"The thing that [Arant's] done — more than anybody could have hoped for — was to be an incredible steward for one of Chattanooga's most important institutions," Sudderth said. "He has done an incredible job of holding true to the original emphasis of the aquarium, which was to be a catalyst for economic development, to be an educational institution that [is] unparalleled."
John Giblin, executive vice president and chief financial officer of BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, is chairman of the aquarium board's search committee for a new president and CEO. Arant will stay on until his replacement is hired.
"These are exciting times for the aquarium, and the search committee has an important challenge ahead of us to find the right person to carry this positive momentum into the future," Giblin said in a statement. "Charlie has provided exceptional leadership to the aquarium during his long tenure, and we will miss him."
Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at firstname.lastname@example.org; on Facebook as MeetsFor Business; @meetforbusiness or 423-757-6651.