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Herschend Family Entertainment: From Dolly Parton to the Harlem Globetrotters

After growing steadily by running mid-market theme parks such as Silver Dollar City, Herschend Family Entertainment is making a growth play with the Harlem Globetrotters.

Herschend Family Entertainment is a privately-held company that has secured a strong clasp on the second tier of the theme-park business across huge swaths of America, operating popular attractions in places bypassed by behemoths like Disney and Six Flags.

And now CEO Joel Manby is leading the Atlanta-based, $350-million, family-owned concern on a new adventure as great as any of the thrill rides at the company’s Dollywood or Silver Dollar City attractions. Herschend just acquired the iconic Harlem Globetrotters from a private-equity firm, and Manby has great plans for leveraging the brand in new ways that will bulk up the Globetrotters – and give Herschend some welcome diversification away from the slow-growing theme-park business per se.

“Not that we’re Disney,” he explained to Chief Executive, “or that we have that genetic code, but we’re similar to them in that they have theme parks too, but 75 percent of their revenue comes from integrating their brands through other media. There’s no reason we couldn’t do that with our brands, integrating the Globetrotters into TV or movies or maybe the Dolly Parton theme park” in Tennessee.

Similarly, six years ago under Manby, Herschend diversified from its traditional theme-park business into the purchase of an aquarium in New Jersey and another in Kentucky. He beefed up the attractions, streamlined overhead and geared up marketing and now aquariums “are one of our highest-margin businesses,” Manby said.

Pete and Jack Herschend built up their company over decades and hired Manby — a former General Motors “high-pot” and president of Saab when it was owned by GM – several years ago to take their company to the next level.

Manby has done that as well as solidified his reputation as a leader by formalizing the company’s culture of “servant leadership,” writing a book about his management philosophy and appearing at company facilities incognito as one of the first CEOs featured in CBS’s popular Undercover Boss show four years ago.

“Everything we do is wholesome entertainment and brands,” Manby explained. “It is an unusual approach, but there is a niche we’ve carved out.”

It’s a niche that, as Manby works on the Globetrotters brand, is likely to get broader. His plans for the legendary team of basketball players that cannot lose also includes expanding the Globetrotters’ minimal presence in China, a basketball-crazy nation, and upping the Globetrotters’ integration with social media.

“Once we learn the arena business through the Globetrotters, we may be interested in acquiring other arena-based brands,” Manby said. “Years from now we want to look like a full-entertainment company.”


Joel Manby, CEO, Herschend Family Entertainment

Size: 11,000 employees

Location: Norcross, Ga.

Goal: The company’s stated mission is to “create memories worth repeating.” That’s been the goal of its theme parks, and Manby means to stretch the mission over other brand venues such as the newly acquired Harlem Globetrotters.

Fact: The company grew beginning in the early Sixties when the Herschend family established the Silver Dollar City amusement park in Branson, Mo.

Unique: Herschend has a status of Peter washing the feet of Jesus in the lobby of its corporate headquarters, testament to the “servant leadership” culture at the company.



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