Stone Mountain Park owner: ‘We’re 50% bigger than 10 years ago’

1. Jefferson Davis' thumb is the size of a sofa. 2. Stone Mountain Park is home to the world's largest piece of exposed granite. 3. On a clear winter day you can see 45 miles from the top. 4. Shrimp live in seasonal pools on top of the mountain. 5. It is believed a ghost occupies the Thornton House at the Antebellum Plantation. 6. The Laser Show Spectacular is the longest running laser show in the world. 7. The Scarlett O'Hara Riverboat is an authentic paddlewheel riverboat. 8. The campground is the large

It’s known for the huge, stone-faced images of Confederate heroes Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis.

But Stone Mountain also is known as one of Georgia’s top entertainment attractions, drawing 4 million paying customers a year.

The ancient mountain is owned by the state, but operated on a long-term lease by Norcross-based Herschend Family Entertainment. The large family-owned company also owns or operates 26 other properties, ranging from Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., to Missouri’s Silver Dollar City and Showboat Branson Belle.

Joel Manby, Herschend’s chief executive officer, came from the auto industry before getting into the amusement game.

Q: You were an executive at GM, Saturn and Saab before becoming president and CEO of Herschend in 2003. Why did you leave the auto industry?

A: At Saab, I was the CEO over the Americas, Asia and Australia. It meant I traveled 75 percent of my time and it affected my family life. I had to make a choice and chose my family.

Q: When did Herschend become involved with Stone Mountain?

A: In 1998. The state owns the mountain, which is managed by the Stone Mountain Memorial Association, and we have a long-term contract to operate attractions. The state authority, known as SMMA, can reject anything deemed unfit. We have 35 years left on the lease.

Q: What have you been doing at Stone Mountain?

A: We bring in more amusements all the time, making the winter season almost as big as the summer season. As a company, we are 50 percent bigger in terms of revenue and profit since 2003. We do 4 million guests a year at Stone Mountain Park and about 16 million at all of the properties combined.

Q: What can you say about revenues of the whole company?

A: We are about a $350 million revenue company. That’s been going up due to some good acquisitions to our properties. We’re 50 percent bigger than 10 years ago.

Q: Has attendance at Stone Mountain Park or the other parks been hurt by the Great Recession?

A: This is the toughest period I’ve ever been through in my career, from an overall economic situation. But the last thing to go on anybody’s list is a vacation with their family. We are affordable, and Stone Mountain Park is strong and stable.

When the recession first hit ..., it felt like the world was coming to an end. We did take some hard action. But to avoid layoffs, all executives in the company took a pay cut and froze all wages for 2009. We saved about 350 jobs because of the actions we took.

Q: How many employees does the whole company have?

A: We have over 11,000 employees. The number of full-time and seasonal employees fluctuates throughout the year. We have corporate employees in Atlanta and Branson, Mo. We are very lean at the top, with only 30 people in corporate.

Q: What is your biggest challenge?

A: I lose a lot of sleep over making sure we maintain our operations and our jobs. The things that have popped up in the last couple of years are legislative burdens, how we are going to handle all the new regulations coming at us, including health care. We spend a lot of money and resources trying to adhere to all regulations. Secondly, it’s to find the right quality people ...

Q: Many companies are having trouble getting money from banks that they need to operate. What about you?

A: We have not been affected by that. We have very little debt. When you don’t need to borrow, all the banks want to loan it. We fund new things out of our existing cash flow.

Q: Does the state give you guidance about what you can do?

A: The state has jurisdiction over the mountain. We only control the attractions and the tram that goes up the mountain. That’s the way it should be. It is a state treasure, a state asset.

Q: Does the Confederate legacy help or hurt the park?

A: We don’t track that issue. All I know is our attendance has grown. Our focus is on family entertainment.

Q: How did you wind up in Norcross?

A: We moved headquarters in 2003 from Branson, Mo. We couldn’t attract the kind of creative talent we needed in Branson. Here we have a creative studio. And the airport makes it easier to get here.

Q: Which of the parks and other amusements makes the most money?

A: We don’t talk about profits, being a private company. We have 4 million visitors a year to Stone Mountain Park. Dollywood would be the next biggest at 3 million. It drops off to less than a million at other properties. We pay over $10 million a year to the state of Georgia, for 250 acres.

Q: So the economic slump hasn’t hurt you that much?

A: The only thing that we have seen has been an impact on the merchandise, which isn’t going as well ... but foods and admissions are doing quite well.

Q: What is your business philosophy?

A: It is very simple — the level of enthusiasm of the guest experience never rises to the level of your own employees. We hire the right people, pay competitively, deal with people who don’t do very well, make our places great places to work.

Also, we have a foundation for employees in financial need. This creates an incredible loyalty from our employees. They don’t have to pay it back. A local board at each property determines need.

The tough thing about business is you have to balance how you treat employees, your guests and achieve profitability. There is a tension there. You can’t do everything to increase profit, but you can’t give everything to employees or guests because you may not be profitable. We treat people the way we’d like to be treated.

Q: You are not a family member, but is there any chance the company will go public?

A: No. The family believes in private ownership.

Q: What properties have you acquired since you took over?

A: We have acquired ownership and management of Wild Adventures in Valdosta; Newport Aquarium in Newport, Ky.; and Adventure Aquarium in Camden, N.J. And we acquired management of Darien Lake in Buffalo, N.Y.; and Elitch Gardens in Denver.

Q: Didn’t you appear on the TV program “Undercover Boss?”

A: I worked in four different properties, including as a cowboy and a server on a boat. The purpose is to work with your front-line employees and get a better understanding of what they go through. About 18 million people saw it. I learned we have incredible employees.


Job: CEO of Herschend Family Entertainment

Age: 53

Family: Married with four daughters

Residence: Johns Creek

Education: Bachelor’s from Albion College; MBA from Harvard Business School

Favorite books: “The Killer Angels” by Michael Shaara; “How the Mighty Fall” by Jim Collins; and the Bible

Favorite activities: Riding roller coasters, playing golf and tennis

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