Undercover. It conjures images of cold war spies and agent 007. For Joel Manby, it wasn’t as much a covert mission as it was a confirmation of his company’s culture.
To understand his reasoning for going ‘Undercover,’ we need to start at the beginning of this journey. Not every boss has the humility to find out from his or her employees how they really feel about the company and how it is being managed. Not every boss will take on the difficult, day-to-day, hands-on operations that the frontline workers endure to experience what a typical day is like for them, but for Joel Manby it was a necessity. He wanted to make sure the values and principles that HFE was built on many decades ago are still being implemented today.
Herschend Family Entertainment is not a typical company. Founded in 1950 by Hugo and Mary Herschend, HFE was started in a cave - literally. The cave was located near Branson, Missouri and was leased by the Herschends who began to charge people admission to enter the unique attraction. As word spread, the attraction drew more and more people. As years passed, the Herschends found themselves entertaining the crowds who were waiting to enter the cave and eventually built a small, 1880’s-themed village on the grounds surrounding the cave opening. They developed a clever name for the attraction, “Silver Dollar City.”
Silver Dollar City was a huge success and developed into a full-scale amusement park, eventually growing to include 26 other parks in ten different states. The HFE parks include a variety of attractions such as Dollywood, aquariums, site seeing tours and dinner theaters, making it the largest family-owned theme park corporation in the United States, employing over 10,000 people. In the mid 1960’s Jack Herschend assumed the position of CEO, and along with his brother and co-founder Peter, solidified their company culture to the point that they were effectively able to replicate it when other parks were acquired and added to the HFE family. They focused on providing a clean, wholesome and memorable experience for their park guests and treated their employees like family. Both men relied on their faith in God to help them carry out the vision that He’d given them.
Turning Over Leadership
After sixty years of leading the company his parents started, Jack knew that he would have to turn the reins over to a successor. After eliminating a few candidates, Jack considered a man who was on the HFE Board, Joel Manby. Joel was a bright executive who is a Harvard Business School graduate and rose through the ranks at GM and then at SAAB International. Joel ultimately led its North American, South American, and Asian Divisions. He was determined and driven to reach the pinnacle of success at SAAB, and if their profits were any indication, he was a hero.
From SAAB headquarters in Switzerland Joel ran operations in Asia and North America, spanning time zones on opposite sides of the globe, which meant grueling hours coupled with 250 days of traveling per year. The cost of being a corporate hero was taking a toll on his marriage. His wife Marki was being forced to raise their four daughters on her own, and
"Joel was feeling the pull away from his family as he poured his heart and soul into his career. Something had to give."
Thinking that leaving SAAB for a start up technology company would allow him to spend more time with his family, he leaped at the opportunity. Unfortunately he found that he was away from his family the same amount of time and the company was in a downward spiral. In one of the darkest times in Joel’s life, he prayed and relied on God to help restore his family and himself. It was during this time that he received a phone call from Jack Herschend from HFE.
Joel had always considered Jack to be a mentor and began to pour out the despair in his heart and how he needed to do something or he feared he would lose his family. Jack told him that God’s timing is always perfect and went on to tell him of his plans to step down from HFE and how it would be the perfect position for Joel. Jack explained that Joel had the character, integrity and caring leadership qualities that he was looking for as his successor at HFE. For Joel, it was an undeniable answer to his prayers and was the lifeline he needed to reengage with his family.
Jack established a clear, methodical strategy for turning over control of the company. The transition took ten years to implement. He and his brother Peter stepped down from their positions on the Board in 2006, and they formally turned control of the company over to Joel.
There was a tremendous amount that Joel needed to learn, and he found outstanding counsel and support from the senior management team at HFE. Although he knew that such a drastic change in careers would mean a steep learning curve, he was amazed at the complexity of their operations; learning that each of their twenty six parks functions like a small city.
They offer multiple types of food options, from buffet style to sit down restaurants; produce live entertainment; provide security; manage utilities; produce and sell merchandise; provide hotel accommodations, etc., and he had to be versed in each of these aspects. There is an enormous amount of effort that goes into creating a memorable experience for park guests. The people at HFE are some of the best in the business. The numerous industry awards are evidence of that, in addition to the fact that 75% of their visitors are repeat guests. Wanting to dig deeper and know how the employees viewed the company they worked for, Joel signed up to appear in the hit CBS series, Undercover Boss.
On March 28th of 2010, CBS aired the latest installment of its hit series Undercover Boss featuring Joel. Each week, Undercover Boss follows a different senior executive as they exchange the comforts of their corporate lifestyle for an undercover mission to examine the inner workings of their companies. While working alongside their employees, they see the effects that their decisions have on others and where the problems lie within their organizations. They get an up-close look at both the good and the bad, while discovering the unsung heroes who make their companies succeed.
. The episode showed Joel (disguised as John Briggs, an unemployed auto worker) interacting with several front-line employees at a few of the company’s amusement parks while they helped to train him for a job at HFE. The viewers got to see, firsthand, the effects of working for a company that genuinely cares about them. During their exchanges, Joel heard of hardships that employees were enduring with finances, families and their futures.
At the end of the show, each of the employees is invited to the corporate headquarters to meet with company executives to discuss their assessments of ‘John Briggs’. Each employee is astonished when they meet Joel, the CEO. They discuss the struggles that each of the employees is facing, and Joel offers them assistance in the form of a raise, a grant to repair a flood damaged home and other assistance, much of which comes from HFE’s Share-It-Forward program.
Share-It-Forward is a program that the company implemented to establish a fund to match employee donations, and it provides assistance to workers who are facing hardships. In the first two years that Share-It-Forward was implemented, 50 families were helped. The year following Undercover Boss, Share-It-Forward helped over 800 families as the compassion spread throughout the organization.
To give an idea of the impact of that episode, more than eighteen million viewers tuned in to watch Undercover Boss that night. It was the second highest rated program on CBS that week. Not bad, considering American Idol was number one. The HFE corporate website, which typically logs about 50 hits per day, exploded with over 60,000 hits; the reaction was immediate and humbling. Joel’s phone began ringing off the hook, and emails began pouring in from people touched by what they saw.
What was it about that episode that impacted so many people? They were able to witness the results of working for a company that had heart, a company that led with love.
Diving into the culture of HFE, Joel began to understand the reason why they were so successful. It is that same culture that resonated with so many people who saw it in action on Undercover Boss. It was through that experience, coupled with what he learned in working at HFE, that led him to write Love Works (reviewed in 2012 Q4 issue). The basis of applying the concept of love in the workplace is taken from 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, where Paul talks about the selfless principles of love that Christ modeled.
To some, leading with love seems like a sacrifice to the bottom line. That’s simply not true. Joel says,
"If you care about your employees, especially if you are a Christian business man or woman, you must lead with love. To sustain a lasting, profitable company, you must invest in the overall well-being of your employees."Joel Manby
Your organizational health will be better, you will have fewer turnovers, and you will have a happier work force. All of this equates to higher productivity and a better bottom line. Joel states that the sad fact is that most leaders and organizations don’t recognize this.
Through the exposure on Undercover Boss and now with his book Love Works, Joel and HFE feel blessed and honored to have a platform on which to promote Christian principles in the work environment. It has allowed them to reach people who they may never have reached otherwise. When a family visits an HFE park, they can count on it to be a clean, wholesome experience and to be served by employees who genuinely love their jobs and the organization for which they work. And it shows!