Undercover Boss Finds Herschend Parks Can be More than Entertaining

Herschend parksYou've probably seen a Herschend Family Entertainment property; you might have even visited one. Since they're so diverse, however, you just might not be aware of it. They have 22 properties in nine states, with attractions ranging from Dollywood in Tennessee and the Talking Rocks Caverns in the Ozarks to aquariums, water parks, theme parks, campgrounds, hotels and those "Duck Tour" amphibious vehicles that cruise through various American cities.

That's why it was so important to CEO Joel Manby be an "Undercover Boss" -- to get out there and see just how everything works.

Family values

Manby became the company's CEO in 2003, and he was hired for his marketing and branding skills rather than his knowledge of the theme park industry. He'd gone to Harvard Business School on a GM scholarship, and worked for the giant corporation for many years, during which he actually launched Saturn, and served as CEO of Saab. His timing for accepting the Herschend brothers' offer turned out to be remarkably fortuitous.

That decision had nothing to do with the economy -- GM, Saab and Saturn were all thriving when he left. But it was his family that was suffering. Herschend has four daughters, and he couldn't stand the fact that he was on the road 70 percent of the time. With HFE, he could spend a lot more time with his family in Atlanta, where the company is based; and, since their properties are all family-oriented, when he needed to travel, he could often take the girls with him.

Manby's family values are what made him such a great fit for the company, and for Undercover Boss. More than any other company on the show so far, HFE seems to treat its employees in a very familial way. The company's three main objectives, Manby says, are: "to create memories worth repeating for our guests, to make this a great place to work for great people," and to cultivate a servant-leadership culture, with emphasis on words like kindness, respect, patience and honesty. "I wanted to go undercover to see how well were were meeting those objectives," he said.

If that attitude sounds a little unusual in corporate America, that's because it is. "To be honest, I'll get more beat up in the board room for low employee or guest scores than I will for bad revenue or profit scores," Manby laughs.

There when they need it

The Herschends already had a non-profit foundation in place called Share it Forward, which specifically takes care of HFE employees in need. "We have a lot of seasonal people living from paycheck to paycheck," Manby says, "and others with specific special needs."

But the Undercover Boss experience helped Manby realize that there were too many employees who didn't even know they could apply for aid through the foundation. One of his major goals, as a result of the show, is to amp up that program and help employees become aware that it's available.

"Mercedes, who I worked with at the Aquarium, hadn't even told anyone she'd been homeless before she came to work for us. We have this program in place to help people like her and her young son Carl, but she didn't know how to apply for it." When Manby revealed himself to her as the company CEO, he also told her he'd be giving her a raise, and that they would provide her new apartment with everything she needed to make it feel like a real home.

If it quacks like a duck...

One of Manby's most challenging Undercover Boss duties was serving as a tour guide for a group of energetic kids on a Duck Tour. They use the same type of vehicles used in WWII to storm Normandy, he explained. The Germans called them mosquitoes, because they could go everywhere and were extremely hard to hit. Now fitted with comfy seats and a microphone, they'll take you on a tour on both land and water in cities like Philadelphia, Boston, Seattle, San Francisco, Branson, MO., and Cincinnati. Captain Howard, or "Tiny," as they call the king-sized guide who jovially trained Manby, had such an infectious and good natured way about him that he's being sent all over the country to help train other Duck Tour guides.

At the Adventure Aquarium in Philadelphia, Manby also learned how to identify fish for visitors, as well as the fine art of tank window cleaning -- which, he discovered, is not half as easy as it looks.

Not one of the jobs was easy. He did a street-washing stint that started at 3:30 a.m. at Silver Dollar City in Branson, Mo., during which he managed to squirt Richard, his co-worker and trainer, with freezing water from a power hose. But Branson made it up to Richard when he revealed his true identity.

Richard and Manby had bonded over the fact that they both have large families, which include adopted children. Richard confided that a flood had ruined their home, and he and his wife and five kids had to live in a pop-up camper for awhile. Two years later, the home still isn't completely repaired. Manby gave Richard $10,000 to repair the home, and asked all the employees of Silver City to show up at his house one day and help finish the repairs.

Real company-wide changes

Manby also tried his hand at food service in the antebellum dining room of the Branson Belle Showboat, where he "sweated like crazy" confused orders and had a hard time balancing trays of food. His trainer was Jennifer, the single mother of two who was having a hard time paying for child care. Later, Manby not only committed to covering her child care, but also committed to starting a company-wide program to help others in the same situation. "We need to help our single parents more," he told his executives gathered in the boardroom.

And then there was working as a customer service rep at Silver Dollar City, doing everything from selling tickets to keeping the stroller area organized. He almost pulled a wall down when he forgot to unplug a motorized chair from the wall socket where it was charging. Albert, his trainer, demonstrated incredible patience, and during a break told Manby that he would one day like to be the CEO of the company, but he was having a hard time working full time and going to school.

Not only did Manby end up giving Albert a full scholarship, but offered to pay him full time working wages while he was going to school full time, if he would still come back in the summer. Manby then went on to set up an employee scholarship program so that others could benefit as well.

"I tried really hard to make systematic changes as a result of my Undercover Boss experience," Manby says. "I didn't want this to just help a handful of people, but I wanted to make changes that would help everyone. On the Monday morning after the show airs, we're sending out a company-wide email to all our employees telling them how they can apply for help from the Share It Forward Foundation," he says, noting that that is just the beginning.

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