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Theme Parks: Interview with Joel Manby, President and CEO of Herschend Family Entertainment

[Above: While undercover, Joel Manby went back in time at Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri]

Joel Manby, President and CEO of Herschend Family Entertainment (HFE), the largest privately owned family theme park corporation in the US, believes that work doesn’t have to be tough as long as you can bring your values with you to the office.  Manby knows all about working hard: from humble beginnings he began his career at General Motors (GM), attended Harvard Business School on a GM scholarship and rose to become CEO of Saab Automobile USA.  But happiness in the workplace eluded him until he answered what he describes as “a calling” to join HFE; Manby has served on the HFE Board since in 1998 and was appointed CEO in 2003.  Under his leadership, HFE has shown strong profit expansion through targeted acquisitions and organic growth.

silver dollar city theme park wanted posterRelated:  Blooloop talks to Great Wolf CEO Kim Schaefer / Interview with Merlin Entertainment's Mark Fisher, MD Theme Parks / Blooloop interviews Tom Mehrmann, Chief Executive, Ocean Park Corporation / World Leadership through People and Creative Ideas : An interview with Nick Varney, CEO of Merlin Entertainments Group    

HFE’s roots go back to 1950 when Hugo and Mary Herschend acquired a lease on Marvel Cave near Branson, MO.  Ten years on, Mary opened Silver Dollar City, a small 1880s-themed village on the cave's grounds to entertain visitors waiting for the tour.  Today HFE owns, operates or partners in family orientated attractions in 26 locations in ten states including Silver Dollar City, Dollywood, Stone Mountain Park, Newport Aquarium and new additions Darien Lake and Elitch Gardens.

For most of the company’s first 50 years Mary’s sons Jack and Pete headed up the business, imbuing the organisation with their family values.  Manby is committed to growing HFE whilst reinforcing the ethics established by the Herschends – HFE’s mission is to “create memories worth repeating”.

Blooloop talked to Manby about joining the HFE family, appearing on Undercover Boss and how to create values worth working for.  

What enticed you to come to HFE from a very successful career in the car industry?

I just fell in love with the industry, and with how Jack and Pete ran the business.  Just the way they approach it is the way I always thought a business should be run and frankly it was a lot different than what I had found in most of the car industry.  So one thing led to another.  I figured life is too short and I want to be around people I enjoy, in a business I enjoy, with a culture and a way of doing business that I enjoy.

How did you learn about HFE’s business and what skills did you bring with you that have been useful?

It’s interesting because I see a lot of similarities between the two businesses at a very high level.  I think my best skill set is leadership and brand building.  Developing an organisation and developing a brand are very similar in all businesses.  Leadership is teaching your organisation what you stand for as a company, whereas brand building is teaching your customer.  Really good leaders like Jack and Pete are good at teaching both their customers and also their own people what they stand for. 

joel manby ceo herschend family entertainment theme parksI did have to learn to lead in a different way.  In the car industry I had worked up from the ground level and I knew every job.  I was much more autocratic.  Here, because I didn’t know what I was doing, I had to ask a lot of questions and I surrounded myself with incredibly good people.  I have a stronger team around me now than I did in the car industry because I think you attract and keep good people when you let them do their thing.  As long as you clearly define what success is and they are left to get on with it then I find that it works better and everyone is happier.  I actually feel better about this style of leadership. 

What key lessons have you learnt in your time with HFE and in the Industry generally?

The biggest thing that I’ve learnt quite honestly is how incredibly focussed the Herschends are on people.  As an example, when I was in the car business I would go to a board meeting and ever question, every grilling that you got was always about the numbers – only about what your margins were, what your growth was.  At a Herschend board meeting I get just as many questions about the people scores, our guest scores, our employee scores, reinforcing all the time that our own people and customers have to come first.  The numbers, the financial results will fall out of that and are not the primary objectives.  I’m sure there are other attractions run like this but for me the Herschend’s approach was very different.

Who in the Attractions Industry has been an inspiration to you and why?

I hate to be repetitive but it is the Herschends.  My dad passed away in 2004 and they have been like second fathers to me.  They are really my role models.  If I could point to one thing they are incredible encouragers.  Jack spends the first 20 minutes of each day writing thank you notes about what he saw the previous day to reinforce the right behaviour.  So throughout the company you see these little handwritten notes from Jack framed on the walls.  When I’m on my game I spend the morning writing those notes and it’s incredible what it does for your own spirit and getting the right focus.  We all have enough failures each day to feel really lousy about ourselves and we have to remember the successes.

What was your approach to taking over the reigns of HFE in 2003 – what were the challenges you faced in becoming CEO of a long standing much loved family business?

wild adventures theme park roller coaster children enjoying ride

It was really hard in some ways but Jack and Pete made it quite simple.  I was not the first non-family CEO, there were two before me, so they had paved the way.   We were having some lack of success in some areas and so I first clearly defined what success was: what are our metrics were, balancing between guest, employee and financial goals. But I think the bigger thing, the most important thing that I did, was to define what our culture was.  Jack and Pete work through osmosis.  When they ran the company they only had six properties and now we have 26 properties.  So with the team we put together a definition of the culture down on paper so that everybody knew what was expected. 

We have eight words that define how we’re supposed to be behaving with each other:  patience, kindness, humility, honesty, respectfulness, selflessness, commitment, and forgiveness (which is the hardest). 

We actually measure people on the numbers but also on their behaviour and that reinforces the culture.  We have two sheets: one for numerical quantitative objectives and the second is the culture piece.  It’s subjective but it leads the conversation.  The top score in both gets the highest raise.  We try to put our money where our mouth is.  It’s not a perfect system, but its better than saying it’s important and not putting anything behind it.

[Image above: HFE owns and/or operates 26 properties in 10 states, including Wild Adventures in Valdosta, Georgia]

The company's mission is to "Create Memories Worth Repeating".  How do you achieve this?  Through reinforcing the culture?

It’s a big part of it, but it’s even simpler than  that.  I know that if you went to all of our properties and asked, I would be shocked if there was anybody who didn’t know that that was our mission because we’ve been worked so hard to train it, and every host, every employee understands what their role is to create memories worth repeating.  Everybody is energised around that and a lot of magic happens.  If we had hours I could bore you with incredible stories of what our employees do.  Nobody every gets in trouble when they make this happen.  If they spend too much money doing it then we try to coach them on how they could spend less next time or in a different way, but they will never get in trouble . 

You’re quoted as saying, “We have such a twisted perception, most companies, that work has to be bad, it has to be hard. You have to hit the profit, but that’s a result of great behaviour, not why you’re there. We want to have a family atmosphere.” How do you create a culture where this is possible?

I have never understood in life why people feel like at work they have to throw away whatever values they hold dear to them at home.  Any time I talk to someone who is discontented with their work it’s because the values at work don’t match the values at home, and every time you talk to someone who resonates with their work it’s because their passions and their values line up.  I just think its good business.  We put our values right out their in a very straightforward way and if people resonate with them then they’re going to enjoy being here.  My role at any leadership interview is to lay out the values and say, “These are the values we live by.  If you read this and get excited you should come here. If you read this and think it’s BS so to speak then don’t come, don’t bother because you’re not going to like it.”. 

The agreement with CNL to manage Darien Lake Theme Park Resort and Elitch Gardens (pictured right) was announced in January 2011 – what are your plans  for these attractions?

elitch gardens theme park roller coaster

Our plan is to bring these brands back to be strong local brands.  They have had so many owners over the years they have lost some consistency and to have great brands you need consistency.  We’re going to bring stability back and grow the local brands.  They have good bones, they have good heritage and have been in those markets for a long time.  We just need to recapture those glory days, not that Six Flags was necessarily all negative, but we’re just taking the brand in a different direction to come back and go local.

With HFE are you trying to develop or roll out your own brand or enhance the local brands?

We have actually debated that on all of our parks.  The answer is that we are going to promote the local brands.  We don’t try to connect most of our parks with the Herschend name.  We do it on the website and if people pay attention they know.   Maybe someday we’ll do that but not right now. 
Are you going to be rolling out your values and management style? 

Yes that will definitely go in there: how we treat people, the fact that were trying to create memories worth repeating.  Internally, yes we want to do the same customer focus, guest focus and employee focus for sure.  To the outside world we won’t try to hang the Herschend name on it .

Is this a new strategy for HFE – will you look for more management only opportunities?  Are you seeking to expand current brands in this cash efficient model, using CNL or a similar partner for capital investment?

It is part of our strategy to grow the company and not just with things that we own.  We’ll have to see how this one goes.

HFE has a broad range of businesses.  Which areas are you looking to expand?

Our focus area is our core theme parks, waterparks, aquariums and our new business which we have made public that we want to grow is the resorts.  To have accommodation near our big parks that would be our new business.

Are there any particularly exciting new attractions that you can tell us about?

snow mountain resort theme park herschendWe have Snow Mountain at Stone Mountain Park where we actually cover the huge laser lawn with snow and we open up all winter [see image left].  We have created a whole new business that had never been done before in conjunction with a theme park operator.

At Dollywood we have the Barnstormer [$5.5 million family thrill swing ride pictured below right].

Half Dollar Holler at Silver Dollar City is interesting [$1 million playscape and ride area].  From our guest feedback we wanted something for smaller guests.  So many companies put in big rides for teenagers and we wanted something for 0-7 year olds.  We’ve not done a lot of that so it’s an experiment.

We have an interesting thing at Newport Aquarium called Penguin Palooza with some new incredibly attractive arctic Rockhopper penguins.  

At Wild Adventures we have added two new water rides.barnstormer thrill ride herschend family entertainment joel manby interview

We have a lot planned for 2012 but I can’t tell you about that yet.

What is the role of partnerships for HFE and how do you balance corporate promotional goals with your mission?

We debate it and are careful with it.  We don’t want to have a partnership that doesn’t fit our brand.  As an example we think that Coca Cola is a perfect partner – we use the old 1800s logo as much as we can do, and in say Dollywood, that classic Americana fits the theme of the parks.  We want what happens inside the gate to feel unique and not remind people too much of what’s going on right outside the gate.  I know for a lot a theme park companies they have taken the exact opposite approach and have kind of used their customers and are selling advertising to them.  We have tactically not gone there because we do not want to destroy the guest experience; our guests are so loyal and they like the feel of our parks. 

Are you looking to increase partnerships?

We’re always looking at new ones.  We have 26 properties and we only have one person that’s focussed on partnerships so I would say that there is a mild focus but it’s not a major strategy.

What was the significance of Dollywood winning the Applause Award in 2010?dolly parton with bald eagle herschend family entertainment dollywood theme park

We were very excited about it.  It showed that the brand that we have tried to create of world class entertainment and very strong values has been recognised.  It was great for the very hard working front line employees that we have there.  Of course Dolly has been a fantastic partner and it was great to see her get recognition.  She’s a visionary, a great person with a wonderful heart, great to work with and she’s very, very bright so I’m glad for her.

HFE is involved in wildlife conservation and community outreach programmes. Can you tell us of any particularly interesting initiatives and what they bring to the company?

The eagle sanctuary is incredible [Dollywood is home to Eagle Mountain Sanctuary – a 30, 000-square-foot aviary that houses the country's largest presentation of non-releasable bald eagles, pictured right].  We take injured eagles and rehabilitate them.  If they can be released they’re released, and if they can’t they stay.

We’re huge on trees.  On our logo that leaf represents our desire to keep trees standing.  Jack has an ambition to plant 1million trees before he pherschend family entertainment logoasses away and I think he’s about half way there.  As an example of what we do I know for a fact that since I’ve been here as CEO we have planted more trees than we’ve knocked down.  At the Half Dollar Holler at Silver Dollar City  they’re adding all these attractions in a wooded area and they have a goal as to how few trees they’re going to knock down.  It’s just a neat cultural thing.

The last one came out of Undercover Boss.  We have an internal foundation called Share Forward and it’s one of the accomplishments that has made me happiest.  Our employees donate into a non-profit foundation and then the company matches it and then the owners match it, so $1 becomes $3.  We use that money for employees who are in financial distress – if they have a need they can apply. 

The frontline employees, they’re the key.  They make it happen with the customers and if they’re feeling worried about their medical bills or house payments, there’s no way that they can be as enthusiastic for the customer.  Their enthusiasm has to be high so we have to try to help them solve their issues.

Last year we helped over 700 families and we increased our giving by over 200% so were headed in the right direction.  It does amazing things and people get really energized because they know that the company cares for them.  I would encourage more companies to do this kind of thing.   I’m not pretending at all that we get it right all the time but I know that there are 700 people out there that are a lot more enthusiastic than they were before with our help.

There's an impressive set of stats on HFE’s website about environmental projects.  Can you tell us what your experience is with green initiatives?

go greener with herschend family entertainmentIt came from the ethos of Jack and Pete to start with.  It’s in our DNA: we’ve always been that way in the protection of trees.  Jack, as a young employee when working for his mother Mary, was fired twice by her for knocking down trees unnecessarily.  If you go to our parks some of the buildings are actually wrapped around trees so we’ve always done it because that’s what we were taught to do and we believe it’s the right thing. 

We really don’t try to measure the financial success, we don’t have a metric.  We also don’t market it.  You try to market it too much and it doesn’t look authentic.   

We know that employees appreciate it and guests appreciate it.  They develop this little love affair with the company for a zillion different reasons and one of them is probably because we’re environmentally friendly.  We’re not perfect : we do the best we can do, and we do it because we believe it’s right.

joel manby undercover boss ride the ducks herschend family entertainment theme park

What did you gain from the experience of being on Undercover Boss ?  Was there anything that particularly surprised you?

[Joel Manby tests his water legs as co-captain at Ride The Ducks in Stone Mountain Park, Atlanta pictured left]

Well what surprised me what not working with someone per say, but how emotional I was about it and how much it changed me. I grew up actually very poor and I worked very hard to get where I was, but there’s no way you remember quite like you should, what it’s like to work from paycheck to paycheck and the struggles you go through.  It made me a huge advocate of our foundation and I spend a lot more time now than I used to paying attention to the board and what we’re doing there, raising money and being a cheerleader for it.  That’s probably been the biggest change for me because it’s all about making sure that the front line is enthusiastic. What they did and how good they were didn’t surprise me at all.


Images: Kind courtesy of Herschend Family Entertainment

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