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Source: FunWorld

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Some bosses like to keep employees on edge. Jim Reid-Anderson wants to put them at ease. § The new chairman, president, and CEO of Six Flags Entertainment Corporation is the kind of guy who likes to crack a joke— often at his own expense—and doesn’t mind leaning up against a roller coaster track for a company photo, even if it means ruining a sport jacket.

 

Originally from the United Kingdom near Wimbledon, Reid-Anderson traveled the globe in executive roles for companies such as PepsiCo, Mobil, Grand Metropolitan (now Diageo), and Siemens AG. As the CEO of Dade Behring he helped guide the medical company through bankruptcy in 2002 before its eventual sale to Siemens in 2007.

 

By joining Six Flags in August 2010, Reid- Anderson took over a company that’s had a rough go of it the past decade: soaring debt, two contentious corporate leadership changes, and a declaration of bankruptcy in June 2009. The 51-year-old father of four (all under 20—his best and most honest focus group) acknowledges how tough it’s been for the employees he’s still getting to know. But he firmly believes they are the key to the company’s future success.

 

Reid-Anderson has a bottom-up business style that empowers the Six Flags team on the ground—those out walking the hot, crowdedmidways every day—tomake important decisions and guide their parks. Key personnel from all 19 of Six Flags’ theme and waterparks have his personal cell phone number, and he expects to hear from them—regularly. His promise: to always treat those who work for him fairly, with honesty and facts; in other words, exactly how he wants to be treated.

 

Reid-Anderson has been working tirelessly to improve his company’s image both at home and abroad. Upon taking the job he immediately started meeting with investors to change their perceptions not only of Six Flags, but the entire attractions industry. He believes strongly that a rising tide lifts all boats.

 

It all appears to be working so far. On Feb. 22, Six Flags announced 7 percent growth for the full year—up 18 percent in the fourth quarter alone. 2010 revenue rose to a total of $976 million, with adjusted EBITDA up 50 percent to $295 million. Full-year company-wide attendance rose 4 percent to 24.3 million visitors, including 3.1 million in the fourth quarter—a 19 percent jump over 2009. Recently Funworld was invited to the Six Flags corporate office in Arlington, Texas, for an exclusive interview with the new CEO. In this comprehensive discourse, Reid-Anderson discusses Six Flags’ strengths and weaknesses, his business and management philosophies, and what will make his new company successful in 2011 and beyond.

 

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ASSESSING SIX FLAGS

 

What brought you to Six Flags, and what were your first impressions of the company?

I received a call from one of the investors saying this role is something I’d really be interested in. Once I did a little bit of due diligence, I became pretty rapidly convinced Six Flags is a great place to be.

 

This is a great company with a fabulous history that has just had a few rough years due to a number of reasons that are irrelevant now. We’re at the point where we can get that great history back. That’s been reinforced during my first six months here.

 

What was appealing to you about this job?

There were three things. First, I felt the industry was misunderstood and, perhaps, devalued in its external perceptions [onWall Street]. I like the industry and think it has tremendous long-term potential. I would like to be in a position to work with IAAPA and others in the industry to raise the whole profile.

 

Second, the assets within Six Flags are great. Trying to recreate a Six Flags from scratch would be so difficult to do, but we have these wonderful parks already.

 

And the third and single most important aspect, for me, is our people. They are our number-one asset, and a driver for why I enjoy what I’m doing.

 

What has it been like for you to visit the parks and meet employees?

It’s been phenomenal. It’s not that I expected one thing or another, but the most pleasant surprise has been the quality of people in our parks and their absolute dedication to this company. Their tenure amazes me, many of them starting when they were teenagers. Their love of this company goes very deep.

 

That’s a telltale sign of so many in this industry—they started by taking tickets or running rides and turned those jobs into careers.

It’s actually different than many other industries, and I’ve seen a number of them. There’s a loyalty, a dedication, and a desire to make people happy. That’s why people love working in this industry. That’s a real strength.

 

And that’s something appealing to you, as well?

Absolutely! That’s one of the reasons I like being here. How many jobs out there involve making people happy, creating memories for people?

 

Can you share a few keys to improving employee satisfaction?

In a way I have a bit of an advantage because things were so rough here for so many years. There was very low morale, so I try to talk directly with employees at all levels, to ask them what they think. I want them to love working here and feel part of a family. You think about how Six Flags started—it’s a family. I want them to feel we’re all pulling in the same direction.

 

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Speaking of Six Flags' origins, what does it mean to the company and its employees to be celebrating your 50th anniversary this season?

This is a major milestone for the company and the industry— one we are excited to be celebrating throughout the year. When Six Flags Over Texas opened in 1961, it launched the regional theme park business and quickly became an innovator with the introduction of many industry firsts: the pay-one price admission ticket; full production shows; and, of course, a long list of record-breaking rides and attractions. Generations have grown up with Six Flags—grandparents who came as children now bring their grandchildren. Six Flags has grown up right along with our guests, and while we continue to innovate and create new offerings, the foundation—the basis for Angus Wynne’s creation some 50 years ago—remains the same: safe, friendly, clean family fun.

 

BANKRUPTCY, INVESTOR RELATIONS, AND WALL STREET’S PERCEPTION OF THE INDUSTRY

 

What have you learned so far about keys to success in this industry?

First and foremost, it’s perhaps misunderstood. What Wall Street looks for is consistency and credibility—perceptions are built around that, and I think they haven’t seen that consistency from our industry. They want us to say what we’re going to do, and then do what we say. They want us to communicate clearly. It’s important for us to not criticize each other, and raise the whole profile in a positive way. This industry’s good at that, and we have to work on it further.

 

So what story do you feel we need to tell Wall Street?

The reality is investors don’t focus on this industry; primarily because of Six Flags, they’ve moved away and have not believed in it.

 

So literally from Day 1, we started an agenda to proactively talk to investors. And we don’t just talk about Six Flags; we start with a discussion of the industry and why it’s good. We talk about the fact that it’s very stable, even amidst a horrendous recession. We have a high recurring revenue base.

 

By improving the industry’s image, we also improve our own image as the whole water level rises. We’ve had a lot of meetings with people who at first had no interest in talking to us. But over a period of time we’ve won them over and they’re supportive. That’s part of the reason you’ve seen a lot more investor interest in the company recently.

 

Wall Street often seems geared only toward quick growth, while our industry is more about long-term goals and stability. What are your thoughts on that concept and perception?

There are investors who want short, quick returns, but I would not work for a company where that type of pressure existed. In fact, Six Flags is part of only 2 percent of American companies that won’t issue financial guidance to investors. We want people to invest in our company because they believe in our long-term vision, and understand that type of positive change does not happen overnight. That approach has been extremely successful for us.

 

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Has that philosophy guided you throughout your career?

Yes. We did the same thing at Dade Behring and it worked well. We had loyal investors who were there for the long term. Dade Behring gave me a lot of experience in how to manage a company that went through bankruptcy. It also went through a few rough years with low employee morale; we were successful in building one team and one culture fighting for the same thing. That’s similar to what we have at Six Flags.

 

Six Flags emerged from bankruptcy in May 2010. How is the company positioned entering its first full season free from that burden?

The company is situated really well. We took the necessary steps through the bankruptcy and immediately following— not only to establish the core of the company, but also the leadership team and the strategy. That positions us ever so well for 2011 and beyond. Team morale is high, considering where it was, and will continue to grow.

 

Can you discuss the successes you’ve already seen since joining Six Flags?

The single most important success we’ve had is a positive internal response to our strategy and key imperatives. We are going to be the leading regional theme park company. That focus has been received very well by our employees.

 

Secondly, we’re in a position where our people can actually see the strategy is working. We saw great success as we went through the third and fourth quarters. The operational piece has yielded good performance in the parks. Our park presidents are more like entrepreneurs now—they feel they can go make things happen, which was not the case previously.

 

Concurrently, we’ve been working to improve our overall financial standing even further. Immediately we were communicating with our shareholders and other parties who might be interested. We directly engage with the credit rating agencies, who are notoriously slow and nervous about making ratings changes. We went to them early and weekly and said this is a great company, and the ratings we have are not right. As they saw our third-quarter results they agreed and we received upgrades rather quickly. That allowed us to go back and renegotiate our debt financing so we could reduce our interest rates, putting us in a position where we could pay our first-ever dividend to our shareholders.

 

We managed to make a lot of people happy in a short amount of time, but it requires proactive and open communication. People have to be able to look you in the eye and know this company’s for real.

 

ATTRACTIONS ANDTHE IN-PARK EXPERIENCE

What is your philosophy on Six Flags’ innovation within the industry? Do you want to be on the cutting edge or stick to tried-and-true concepts? You need a mix of both. Six Flags has a history of great innovation— pretty much every kind of roller coaster you can imagine. People are proud of that. Over the past few years that hasn’t happened in quite the same way, and for many good reasons.

 

Our philosophy is very simple: People like news, they like innovation. But innovation doesn’t just have to come in terms of the biggest, fastest ride—or most expensive piece of hardware. What we’re trying to do is provide news and excitement in every park, every year. It might be a ride, it might be a show, but you have to make sure the park is driving that decision. What do we think we need to attract people and make them come back? It will come the form of in new capital, and in the way we communicate with people and attract them to our parks.

 

Innovation can be high risk, high reward. What are your thoughts on balancing risk and innovation?

If you’re thoughtful about the process, and you gather input from the park leaders, then you can balance off that risk. If you look at our lineup for 2011, it is fantastic— probably the most exciting overall lineup in a decade for Six Flags. We have the mix of innovation and more traditional approaches. We’re going to do our best to provide that balance, so there isn’t a single park where people can say, “What have they actually done?”

 

In the 1990s and early 2000s, Six Flags focused almost exclusively on high-thrill attractions, namely roller coasters. Under the previous executive team, the company moved strongly toward family-friendly fare. How do you plan to balance those two seeming extremes?

I am not in a position to define what every park needs. The best guides I have are the teams in our parks who know the demographics in incredible detail. In the past few months we’ve developed a five-year capital plan. It’s a balance, and it will be different by park. And it’s coming from our leaders on the ground.

 

You seem willing to entertain any idea.

We are open to anything, and our people do come up with any and all ideas! We go through them and try to make the right decisions for our guests. We look at the broad picture. I want to know, park by park, what the need is, and not just on a one-year basis; it’s like a chessboard, and you’re trying to think ahead.

 

What are your thoughts on attractions with intellectual property licenses?

You need a balance. You will see us use both internally and externally developed themes, depending on the needs of our parks. There is no one answer.

 

But theming, in general, is important to Six Flags going forward?

Yes. It is part of delivering the guest experience. That’s why it’s called a theme park. We want to leverage that.

 

What about corporate partnerships, which have increased over the past several years in Six Flags locations? What benefits do they bring to the table?

We have relationships with several major companies. When you think about, for example, Coca-Cola, Discover Card, Mars, Wrigley … these are fantastic brands. They benefit because there are 25 million people visiting our parks they can reach. And through them, we can reach a much broader audience, too, and we’ve been doing that very successfully. You will see us build on that, but in a positive way, not to the detriment of our parks. That’s something I watch very carefully.

 

How do you define a positive corporate presence in the parks?

We have a strict approach to this that we’ve refined as we’ve gone along—tightened it up a bit. It can’t detract, in any way, from the experience guests have in the parks.

 

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What are your thoughts on how Six Flags should be marketed in 2011 and looking toward the future? Have we seen the last of Mr. Six?

Over the past 10 years, for a variety of reasons the company has built more of a global brand image. What we need to do now is translate that at a local level. The difference you will see going forward is we will have a new campaign, focused around “Go Big! Go Six Flags!”—a bigger, grander, epic theme. The marketing will feature our parks and new attractions, and will place less emphasis on Mr. Six—you might see him as a tag or something like that. You won’t see Little Six again. The emphasis will be on celebrating our parks.

 

How will you communicate those messages to your potential guests?

TV—local TV—cinema, radio, print, Internet … we’ll use every form. But it will be specific to the local area. We think our guests want to know what is going on in their park. That’s what will trigger the decision to visit.

 

How do you define the Six Flags brand as it stands now, and do you want to see that change over the coming years?

Right now, people think about Mr. Six. Going forward I want them to think of Six Flags—our parks. I want them to think about the brand as somewhere they can go to have fun with their family or friends … enjoy a great day out and create memories. Our people will reinforce over and over to “have a Six Flags day.” It’s part of our culture. I want people to escape from the real world and have a perfect day. And then desire to come back again. That would make me happy.

 

Six Flags' 5 Key Strategic Imperatives

 

Jim Reid-Anderson worked with his park presidents and other team leaders to create five key imperatives to fuel Six Flags’ ongoing strategy. With the goal of delivering excellence, and built on a foundation of safety, quality, and innovation, those imperatives are:

 

1. Enhance guests’ experiences

2. Develop guest-focused innovation

3. Improve operational efficiency

4. Deliver financial excellence

5. Build a high-performance team culture

 

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Nice article. From the sound of that interview, and with all the news from our Park President yesterday. It does really seem thing's are being run on a more "local" level now. I think we will finally see all of this park's need's filled by someone that know's what they actually are, the people that run Great Adventure. I know I would want to be more "nostalgic" with this park. The history of this place (as we all know here) compared to other's in the chain, is very unique. With the connection to classic Hollywood that we have, i would focus on that, like Disney does with their past. I would let everyone know that a little kid on the set of the "Wizard Of Oz" built this place.

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The marketing will feature our parks and new attractions, and will place less emphasis on Mr. Six—you might see him as a tag or something like that. You won’t see Little Six again.

 

Thank goodness Little Six is gone. He was horrible to watch.

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