CEO Conversations

Fostering Conversations: Andrew Wexler on leading with love

Shane sat down recently with Andrew Wexler, CEO of Herschend Enterprises. You may know Herschend by their more recognizable brands like Dollywood and the Harlem Globetrotters, but what you might not have known is the role love plays in their decision-making.

In the first part of this Fostering Conversation session, Shane and Andrew reflect on the role that love can play in a business and how caring for your people yields tangible results.

Changing Love from a 4-Letter Word to a Core Business Strategy

“Love is literally a four-letter word. Love is a complicated word. In fact, the Greeks had four words for love. Eros, which is what most people think of, and that’s the emotional love that you have for your spouse or significant other. And then you have philos, brotherly love that you have for those that are close to you – it’s a relational type of love. And then you have storge, which is parental love or the nurturing love you have for your child. All of those “loves” are emotions, feelings. But the fourth type of love is called agape and it’s a verb. Love as an action, a choice you make.

We founded our business culture in the action of love. We commonly say “love in action” to describe how we want people to behave and treat each other.

Operationalizing “Love”

When Herschend Enterprises started it was easy for people to understand what “Leading with Love” meant because they could see our founders every day. Our employees understanding was based on their actions, how they treated each other. They were role models. But as we grew and geographically expanded, people weren’t able to see the founders every day.

We’re standing on the shoulders of giants, the founders, the previous leadership. They all created the foundation. My predecessor, Joel Manby, helped codify the language that we use to talk about “Leading with Love”, that common language we use so people across the organization. We have nine defined behaviors and a purposeful structure that allows employees throughout the organization to be trained based on these defined behaviors. Everybody understands it and everybody’s aligned.

The resulting culture doesn’t happen by accident. My leadership team and the leaders throughout this company make it real, day in, day out. You see it every day at each of our properties, whether it’s how we create memories worth repeating for our guests, or how they take care of each other, or how we’re involved in the communities that we’re in. Our team really believes in it and they act on it. And they know that they have the permission to do what’s right. That’s how we take this timeless concept of love and operationalize it in our day to day business.

Storytelling to Inspire a Workforce

When I became CEO, I felt like my purpose was to make sure “Leading with Love” is real and authentic throughout the organization. I commissioned a book to collect all the stories that have occurred over the years, examples of how we’ve loved our guests, our communities, our employees. Stories help people know what “Leading with Love” looks like, which is really the key to making sure it’s authentic. Stories help people understand that they have permission in the moment to act in a way that is uplifting or loving of another person.

A story from Dollywood is a great example. One of our hosts came upon a family. It was a father and two kids, and they were clearly distraught. People come into our parks and we want to make sure they’re having a fun time. So our host walked up to them and asked, “What’s wrong? Is there something I can do to help you?” And they said, “Well, we didn’t have enough money for the whole family to get in, and so mom is in the car.” This employee just knew that this was the antithesis of what we were trying to achieve. She knew that she had permission to lead with love. She took the family to the front gate, refunded their tickets, had the dad call mom to come meet them at the front gate and she let them in for free. Then, she gave them their money back from the original ticket purchase so they could have money to spend throughout the day.

That’s just an example of somebody being empowered to “Lead with Love” and take care of somebody else. Even though financially in the moment, that might not seem like the best thing to do, I think in the long run there are great returns from that type of action.

Love Tested: Navigating an Industry Crushing Pandemic

Yeah, I remember, Friday March 13th of 2020. That day will be burned into my mind forever. We had just opened Dollywood for season pass holders and suddenly, Disney announced they were closing Disney World. Obviously, Disney is a leader in our industry of family entertainment and attractions. They have operations in Europe and China so they had visibility to the pandemic in a way that we didn’t as a U.S. company. When they shut down, we knew this was serious and that we had to take serious action. So we announced the closing of our properties.

As we entered into the beginning of the pandemic, nobody really knew how long this was going to last. And for a company like ours that is based on mass gatherings of people coming into a space where they would be close to each other, whether it be a theme park, a waterpark, or a dinner theater, or Globetrotter game in an arena, we basically went to zero in terms of revenue. We had no opportunity to make money.

How do you survive? You don’t know how long it’s going to last and you have to make decisions to make it to the backside. I remember one day I had my leadership team on the phone and I said, you know, I don’t want to be the CEO that lost the Herschend legacy.

To me it isn’t about a company going out of business. It’s the legacy of caring, and taking care of people, and bringing families closer together. And I just cannot let that legacy go under on my watch.

We put this idea of leading with love to the test. The first thing we did was be upfront with our employees. Going out of business doesn’t help anybody so we told them we were going to have to make hard choices to ensure the company survived. We went from roughly 6,600 employees down to 300 so that we could survive. The second step included decisions to ensure our employees had money in their pockets and benefits to make it through. Because of the stimulus actions at the federal and state level for unemployment, it was clear that there was going to be a certain amount of cash for furloughed employees. But what they wouldn’t get was health benefits. We challenged ourselves to step into the gap and we paid health benefits for all of our furloughed employees.

Now, fortunately, we got through the pandemic and we’ve recovered very well. But it was in those darkest days that I knew that if we just do the right thing that we’ll get through it.

Love Made Real in Communities

We have foundations at each of our property that focus on their communities because they’re close to their communities and they feel the pain of the local community. For instance at Silver Dollar City, they have a Care For Kids program that works with the public schools to identify needs of at-risk kids and come alongside the school to provide coats, shoes, basic necessities. Dollywood Foundation has an incredible program called the Imagination Library thanks to our amazing partnership with Dolly Parton. There used to be a poor literacy rate in Sevier County where Dollywood is located. So we came together with Dolly to provide books to every child born in the county from birth to five years old. The program was so successful that we now send a book to 10% of every child born in the United States. 

Return on Invested Love: Employee Benefits

So when we talk about love in action, we really try and think about the programs we can offer to ensure our employees feel loved and taken care of. We truly believe that our guests’ experience cannot exceed our employee experience.

There’s a practical side to this. If my employee is stressed out about home, if my employee feels that they’ve been beaten down by their superior, who are they gonna take it out on? When we create an environment that makes sure that the employee feels taken care of, they have the bandwidth they need to take care of our guests.

Specifically, we have programs like Share It Forward, which is a 501(c)(3) employee assistance fund. If something tragic happens to an employee, there’s a program to help take care of that employee.

Photo by commercial photographer Steven Bridges

And, we just announced a really exciting new program called Grow You. Starting in 2022, all 11,000 of our U.S.-based employees are going to have access to over 100 degree, diploma, and certification programs 100% free. Essentially, a young person can come out of high school, and if they want to work in our industry they can come work for us and have college paid for while they’re working. Even if they don’t want to be in our industry long-term, as long as they’re working for us they’re going to get their college degree paid for through our Grow U platform. We’re really excited that it’s going to create opportunity and reduce a lot of barriers that exists for a lot of people who are trying to get their education. We have the tagline: “your education needs to be funded with love, not loans.”

We realize that by relieving the burden of school debt from an employees life frees up our employees to be more productive. They’re going to be able to do a better job day to day, not stressing about how they are going to pay for their education.

We’re hoping this Grow U program relieves a burden in their life and enables us to better attract and retain talent in our industry. The partner we’re using for this program is called Guild Education. They have solid research in terms of the return on investment from turnover to ability to fill jobs to retaining higher quality employees. Roughly 40% of our employees are under the age of 24. The reality of our business is that very few people are gonna make a career of being a frontline theme park employee. Most of them are gonna move on to something else. But we know that the people we do retain are going to be high quality employees that we will continue to invest in through the course of their career.  We feel confident this is a win-win for everyone and will have a 2-to-1 return for our business.

Long-term Sustainability of Love

Our founders instilled a way of doing business that was different. It was about caring for everybody involved, the community, the employees, and definitely the guests, and the consumer.

If you want to be successful over the long term, you’ve got to be sustainable. And sustainability is all about this balance: customers, shareholders, and employees, and other stakeholders like community, vendors. And you’ve got to think of that in balance. And if you put that in balance, then you’re going to be able to survive the long-term.

This idea of love in action, the concept of treating people with respect, dignity, taking care of each other — that’s timeless.

When you lead with love, there are going to be times when you have have to make decisions that may be a little counter to how you’ve always done it in a pure return on investment defined only by dollars. The reason we use dollars to define return on investment is because it’s easy to be counted. But if you think more of economics and utility, you realize there are other benefits to consider. You’ve got to start broadening how you think about benefit. It’s hard to quantify, but if you can get everybody aligned with the right language and everybody believing in the mission, then you can start to see people make the decisions and to do the right things that will pay off in the long run. You may not see this in terms of dollars  next quarter or next year, but this is coming from seventy years of experience. We’re as strong as we’ve ever been, record profits, record growth. And the reason is we think about things in terms of love as a long-term sustainability strategy.

Andrew Wexler
CEO, Herschend Enterprises
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