The Next 'Undercover Boss' Explores a Theme Park


In two sentences, the opening narrative on CBS' (CBS) "Undercover Boss" captures the anger and irritation of many struggling workers: "The economy is going through tough times. Many hardworking Americans blame wealthy CEOs, out of touch with what is going on in their own companies." While the idea of insulated executives making foolish decisions certainly plays into populist rage, one of the strengths of the show is that it explores the larger question of how this disconnection actually happens.

Professional businessmen are an easy culprit. Taking over a successful traditional or family-run company, the business-school graduate of legend has little knowledge or respect for the history of the firm and, all too often, sees it through the skewed lens of a P&L report or an efficiency analysis. On Sunday, "Undercover Boss" will explore this issue through Joel Manby, president and CEO of Herschend Family Entertainment (HFE).

A privately-owned company, HFE owns or runs twenty of America's most prominent theme parks and attractions, including Dollywood, Silver Dollar City, and Stone Mountain Park. Founded in 1951 by Hugo and Mary Herschend, a Chicago couple who vacationed in the Ozark mountains and fell in love with the area, the company began with a 99-year lease on Marvel Cave, a natural attraction near Branson, Missouri. Although Hugo died four years later, Mary and her two sons, Pete and Jack, continued to develop the attraction, installing electric lights, cement walkways and an elevator. In 1959, they opened Silver Dollar City, a replica of an 1880's-era Ozark town. Ten years later, "The Beverly Hillbillies" brought it national attention when they used it to shoot an episode in which Granny goes back home to find a husband for Ellie Mae.

Silver Dollar City quickly became more popular than Marvel Cave. As Pete Herschend would later recount, "We discovered we were in the theme park business." The Hershends went on to build the attraction into a sprawling, 50-acre attraction with roller coasters, a water park and multiple music venues.

HFE expanded across the country; in addition to Stone Mountain and Dollywood, Herschend's attractions include aquariums in New Jersey and Kentucky, amphibious tour attractions cities across the country, and the cable car sightseeing franchise in San Francisco. Through this expansion, the Herschend family remained deeply involved with the company; in fact, Jack Herschend ran it until 2002.

The MBA Arrives

That's where Joel Manby came in. A graduate of Albion College and Harvard Business School, Manby started off as a car guy. He began his career at General Motors, and eventually worked at Saturn, where he helped develop the carmaker's "no hassle" selling program. After a stint in GM's international division, he moved on to Saab, ultimately becoming CEO of Saab USA.

While at Saab, Manby joined the board of HFE and, in 2002, he succeeded Jack Herschend as chairman of the board; the following year, he became CEO of the company. While there is little question of his ability to run a major company, it isn't clear that he has the depth of experience or emotional attachment that the Herschends brought to HFE. Much of Sunday's show will likely cover Manby's discovery of the nitty gritty details of the amusement business, aspects that are difficult to glean from an annual report.

Let the Play Begin

Of course, this being "Undercover Boss," there are certain scenes that one may expect. Manby will presumably announce that he had no idea how hard it is to do a certain dirty job and then have an epiphany in which he discovers that his employees actually take pride in their work. An outspoken critic of Obama's health care initiative, he will presumably discover that HFE's wage workers are -- surprise! -- real people and will probably tear up when he hears about the difficulties that his workers have faced in their private lives. (It would be particularly nice if one of his employees had a health-care related problem). In all likelihood, there will be at least one employee who will need to be straightened out and at least one who will need to be promoted. The chastened, older-and-wiser Manby will do both.

On its best episodes, "Undercover Boss" features business execs who really seem to learn from their experiences, quickly implementing changes that increase the quality of life for their workers; on its worst episodes, the bosses make vague promises about increasing communication with their workers, but don't really accomplish anything concrete. In the case of HFE, the ultimate question is if Manby can learn a lesson that the Herschends probably picked up a long time ago: knowing -- and loving -- a business means looking beyond the bottom line.