What happens when work is fun?
Mike McGee knows.
He’s vice president and chief financial officer at Discovery Science Foundation, which operates a children’s museum focused on science in Orange County, and another in Los Angeles County.
The local location is Discovery Cube—for reasons clear to anyone who drives on the Santa Ana (I-5) Freeway near the Orange Crush of freeways where the cities of Anaheim, Orange, Santa Ana, and Garden Grove meet.
The difference is that McGee gets to stop, get off the freeway, and have fun.
“Every day, I get to see the little light bulbs go on in these kids’ heads—the aha! moment when they absorb the science,” he said in an interview after the event.
McGee was honored in the nonprofit organization category at the Business Journal’s annual CFO of the Year Awards event on Feb. 4 at the Hotel Irvine (see related stories, pages 1, 4, 6 and 10).
He said most of his career as a numbers guy—“I’m a CPA by trade,” he said—has been fun, 12 years of it at the Walt Disney Co., including three as CFO of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim NHL team.
He was vice president of finance at Newport Beach-based Palace Entertainment when Parques Reunidos SA in Madrid was acquiring it in 2007 for $330 million.
Parques is owned by a London-based private equity company, and McGee has also worked in that realm for VisionMaker Worldwide in Orange, a theme park industry-focused partnership for which he led financing efforts on eight acquisitions before taking his current role in Santa Ana in 2008.
“Now [the work] is fun and personally rewarding, too,” he said. “It’s more about the business I’m in and not necessarily about the numbers. I’m using my skills and experience to give back to the community.”
The numbers and the community have come together in his work at the children’s museums.
Discovery Science Foundation opened its Los Angeles location—Discovery Cube Los Angeles November. McGee helped raise the $44 million needed to build it and worked on the finance and governance issues that come with switching from a single-location entity to a multiunit corporate operation.
In April, the foundation’s Santa Ana site plans to debut parts of a $20 million addition that doubles exhibit space to 90,000 square feet. The full grand opening is scheduled for June 13.
“We use it all to help educate kids,” McGee said.
The work has caught the attention of children’s museums in other parts of the country, he said.
McGee particularly noted its environmental focus and an immersive element: He said kids learn stewardship of resources at the two museums by interacting with exhibits.
That happens along the same arc as McGee’s career: work and fun.
“The child has to do something for the exhibit to work,” he said. “They have to push it, pull it, squeeze it, step on it, swing it around—they’ve got to do something.”
The second element is the fun.
“Kids are actually playing games” as part of the learning, McGee said.
Work plus play produces exhibits that include shooting a hockey puck at a virtual goalie and past sensors that show how fast it travels in order to teach about force and acceleration. There’s also the Cube’s “grocery store” exhibit, where pint-sized participants move through a shopping trip and learn about nutrition and making choices.
“We are redefining how informal math and science are being taught,” McGee said.
The museums also collect and measure data to get better at teaching and delighting kids the next time around.
An interesting irony in all this is that some kids who come to the Cube are in the late elementary school years, about the same time McGee discovered his knack for numbers.
McGee, in his acceptance remarks at the CFO of the Year Awards, said he “became an accountant because I’m terrible at comedy,” noting that he had “no timing” for telling jokes.
The timing seems just fine for money work, however—good work that remains refreshingly fun.
“I realized early on, you could always have a job if you knew how to manage money,” he said in an interview. “But it’s taken me by surprise how personally fulfilling that can be.”