Cool Jobs
Some SJ folks have found ways to shun desk jobs and have fun for a living. See how they’ve made careers enjoying work most people only dream about.
By Heather Morse

Mark Hacker

Bird and mammal biologist at Adventure Aquarium

They look jolly and cute floating around the tank at Adventure Aquarium, but Mark Hacker warns that hippopotamuses aren’t the gentle giants they seem.

“Hippos are responsible for more human fatalities in Africa than any other large animal, but they’re really amazing animals if you give them their space,” he says. “They’re very trainable – you can train them to lay down, open their mouths, back up, target with their noses. It’s pretty cool what you can teach them.”

Hacker, who lives in Franklinville, has been training and caring for the aquarium’s two hippos, Button and Genevieve (or Genny, as the staff calls her) for the past eight years. Besides teaching them tricks, he spends his days feeding them, cleaning their massive tank and pens, and keeping them healthy – all while respecting their enormous power.

“You have to think on your toes because they’re massive animals – Buttons weighs 3,100 pounds, and Genny tops out at 4,200 pounds. The key to staying safe is to never occupy the same space as the hippos, so have careful methods of interacting with them through protective barriers,” Hacker says.

This safety measure still allows Hacker and his co-workers to conduct a thorough physical exam on both hippos each morning, as well as train them.

“Right now, we’re spending 10 to 20 minutes each day training Buttons and Genny to undergo a blood draw from their tails so we can check various health indicators,” he explains. “They have to be desensitized to having their blood drawn, but you have to start with small steps. We first put them in a small pen we call a ‘hippo hugger.’

“Then, we use a pen cap to stimulate the sensation of the needle, and they get rewarded with food when they’re calm and patient. We want to make sure they’re comfortable before we do the procedure, so the training can take a long time.”

Using food to reinforce positive behavior works well because Buttons and Genny love to eat – and they eat a lot. “They each eat between 35 and 40 pounds of food each day,” says Hacker. “Broken down, it’s roughly three pounds of grains and 25 pounds of hay. They also get an assortment of greens, fruits and veggies throughout the day. It’s about 70,000 calories every day.”

After feeding the hippos and letting them into the exhibit space each morning, Hacker spends a large portion of each morning cleaning the pen where Button and Genny sleep. “It’s a lot of rinsing, disinfecting and power washing because they’re very messy,” he says. “It can get a little monotonous, but it’s part of the job.”

Though tending to Button and Genny occupies most of Hacker’s days, he also cares for the aquarium’s birds and porcupines.

Another – and more entertaining – part of Hacker’s job includes educating Adventure Aquarium visitors about hippos. “We put on a little show to make it fun for everyone. I throw lettuce and melon, and Buttons and Genny do some tricks,” he says. “I also like to tell people cool facts about hippos, like the fact they secrete a red sweat that acts as a suntan lotion. It has antibacterial properties and gives them tremendous ability to heal. It’s pretty amazing.”

Hacker’s was certain he wanted to work with animals even as a kid. “I was a zoology major in college, but back then I wasn’t sure if I wanted to work at a zoo or become a vet. I eventually volunteered at a zoo during college, and that made my decision,” he says. “I’ve also worked with cows, sheep, elephants and rhinos, but I have an affinity for giraffes and hippos. My wife works with the big cats at the Philadelphia Zoo. We spend most of our evenings after work talking about animals. We’re both big animal lovers.”


PlaqueZach Abo

Day-to-day manager for Enrique Iglesias

In Hollywood, it’s not uncommon to hear the phrase “have your people call my people.” When superstar singer-songwriter Enrique Iglesias says it, he trusts Zach Abo will be the one answering the call and taking care of business for him.

The Cherry Hill native has been working for Iglesias for the past five years as his day-to-day manager, which Abo says is an industry title that basically means he’s the “get-stuff-done liaison between Enrique and the world. Scheduling world tours, selling tickets, handling promotions, managing his appearances, setting up fan meet and greets – I make all that happen.”

Abo admits it’s a glamorous job, but it’s also one that requires crazy hours, enormous flexibility and loads of dedication.

“I can be on the set of a music video for two hours, eight hours or even 24 hours. I never know,” he says. “One time, on a Thursday, I was told I needed to be in India on Saturday. I had to drop everything and fly from LA to San Francisco to get a visa. I flew there, waited in line at the consulate for two hours to get the visa then flew back to LA. I was flying by the seat of my pants.”

Abo admits his willingness to do whatever it takes to get the job done earned him his place in Enrique’s inner circle. “Our entourage is pretty small – it’s usually my boss, our digital guy, Enrique’s personal manager, me and Enrique, of course. I have a lot of fun with the team, but we’re all really hard workers.”

Together, the team has helped Iglesias sell more than 100 million records worldwide, making him one of the best-selling Spanish language artists of all time. “It’s really exciting when we’re selling out concerts or making appearances on Leno or American Idol,” says Abo. “Every time we hit a milestone, I think, ‘This has gotta be the height of my job,’ but then I get surprised by something even better.”

They hit another milestone last fall, when Iglesias’ newest single, “I Finally Found You,” debuted at the top of the charts. “We spent months and months marketing and promoting the single all over the world,” says Abo. “By building up hype over the single, we’re also building the hype for the next tour and album. It’s very strategic – and it’s exciting to see the plan come to life.”

Abo knew he wanted to work in the music industry even as a kid, and he wasn’t afraid to pay his dues to make his dream come true. “During college I interned at Island Def Jam and at The Firm, which were both powerhouses in the music world,” he says. “I had a generic mailroom job, but it was a great experience. I did all the stupid stuff nobody else was wanted to do – I remember helping Snoop Dogg carry stuff to his car. I did whatever I could to be part of the crew.”

A year later, Abo landed another internship with entertainment management company The Collective. “I started out getting coffee for people. I showed up early and stayed late, and I even asked my boss if I could work more because I was just excited to be there. I worked for free for a year,” he says. “Eventually, they offered me a job, and I’ve been moving up ever since – and I don’t have any plans to stop.”



Jim DeMarco

Daytime Emmy award-winning makeup artist

Even as a child, Jim DeMarco wanted to work in show business. He had visions of working on both sides of the camera as an actor, director and script writer. So when he won a Daytime Emmy in 2009, it was the realization of a lifelong dream – even though wasn’t working as an actor, director or writer.

“For years, my career goal was to be part of a soap opera. So when I won for my work as a makeup artist for ‘One Life to Live,’ it was the realization of my dream, just a little re-imagined,” says DeMarco, a Voorhees resident.  “Life has a way of working out the way it’s supposed to. I feel I’m finally doing what I was meant to do.”

If the Emmy win is any indication, DeMarco made the right decision to change career paths more than 10 years ago. These days, his makeup skills are in demand on the sets of hit shows like “Good Morning America,” “Celebrity Apprentice” and “Project Runway,” and he also creates runway-worthy looks for high-profile brands like Michael Kors, Dolce and Gabbana, and Marc Jacobs.

photo (1)“I love transforming people. It’s so creative, and I can watch my work come to life right in front of my eyes,” he says. “It’s very surreal to be on set and meet and work with entertainers and models I admire.”

What sets DeMarco apart from other makeup artists, he says, is his approach. “I look at makeup from an aesthetic perspective, since I’m a licensed esthetician. It helps me create flawless but natural looks for stars and supermodels like Gisele Bundchen, Adriana Lima and Jessica Stam.”

In an interesting twist, DeMarco’s esthetic background was what led him away from – and then back to – working in show business. After spending several years pursing his acting, director and writing goals and even landing a desk job with NBC, DeMarco felt burnt out by the industry.

“I was spending my free time writing scripts and trying to get them sold, but I lost myself in the process. I felt really frustrated with life,” he says.

To alleviate stress, DeMarco turned to holistic medicine, massages and facials. “That planted an idea in my head, so I decided to go to school to learn about skin care. I learned about makeup along the way, and I got experience working for dermatologists and salons,” he says.

And while DeMarco was feeling happy with his career change, he found himself missing the entertainment industry. “I had the opportunity to join NARS Cosmetics, which was amazing because I was able to do the makeup for models at Neiman Marcus and Saks events,” says DeMarco.

From there, DeMarco landed his gig with “One Life to Live,” where he worked until the program moved to an online-only format last year. Though he’s no longer affiliated with the show, he’s still a member of “Soap Opera Digest’s” Style Squad, which gives readers a peek into soap stars’ makeup routines, beauty products and fashion must-haves.

And when he’s not shuttling back and forth between his Voorhees home and sets and runways in New York, DeMarco says he’s developing “a few specialty products for online and QVC. I’ve also launched the Daytime Drama Collection, which is a color palette to create skin and eyes that pop. I have another big makeup project in the works, too. I’m busy, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”


Casey Economides

Cellar master at Amalthea Cellars Winery

If Casey Economides has her way, New Jersey wouldn’t just be known as the Garden State, but also the Vineyard State.

“My job is an awesome opportunity to broadcast the fact that we’re producing some amazing wine in New Jersey,” says Economides. “Our wines have beaten very expensive bottles of wines from France in blind tests.”

IMG_0448She’s referring to 2012 The Judgement of Princeton, which pitted French wines from the Bordeaux and Burgundy against New Jersey wines. The test was modeled on the Judgement of Paris in 1976, when the upstart Californians edged out the French in a blind taste test. This time around, New Jersey wines fared extremely well and even beat some of the French wines (you can read more about the results of the taste test and SJ’s growing wine industry in our October 2012 issue).

“For so long, there’s been a stigma that American grapes create sweet wines, but we’re working to create clean, dry wines here,” says Economides. “The results of the taste test prove we’re on the right track. I foresee that we’ll be producing even better wines in the next three years.”

It’s an ambitious plan, but Economides is up to the task. “I’m a very work-oriented person, and I’m always thinking about wine making, even if I’m not at the winery.”

But as the cellar master, Economides does a lot more than just think about wine, and she’s at the winery more often than not. “My job varies depending on the season. During the grape harvest, it’s a 24/7 job just picking. It’s sweaty, hard work, but I love it.”

The manual labor doesn’t stop there – Economides also puts in sweat equity moving bottles, washing equipment, carrying cases of wine and climbing on top of barrels. “Every month, we have to top off the barrels because the oak absorbs a small amount. We call  it the ‘angel’s share.’”

But Economides says the bulk of her job is blending – and it’s the part she enjoys most. “We’re checking the smells to make sure the nose of each blend is correct. We also want the tannins to be correct so the wine is smooth and has a good palate.

“The ultimate goal is to create a palatable wine and reach umami, the fifth element of taste. The way the grapes blend together has a lot to do with it – there’s nothing to it other than it just tastes good. But blending is more than just mathematics and creating the right pH – it’s where the art of wine making comes in.”

The art and romance surrounding wine making is what originally led Economides to Amalthea Cellars Winery. “I was studying art marketing and communications at Rutgers, and I had the opportunity to study in Belgium. I visited France while I was there, and I just fell in love with the wine-making process,” she says. “After I graduated, I dreamt that it would be an amazing career. I figured that there was no better time to give it a shot, so I went for it.”

She landed a position in sales and marketing at the winery, but was willing to pitch in during the 2011 harvest. “Louis Caracciolo, the president of the winery gave me a shot, and I never looked back. He’s been a priceless resource, and I’m learning about wine making from one of the best.”

And since she’s just 23 years old, Economides knows she has plenty of time to learn and perfect her wine making technique. “I’ve been doing the hands-on learning first, and plan on tackling the book training second. I’ve taken some online classes, attended some seminars and traveled to other wineries to learn. I want to learn everything I can, because I absolutely love what I’m doing. I’ve finally found my outlet.”

July 2013
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