2017 IAAPA Attractions Expo Recap - Constituency Lunch

1801_EXPO_SIG_COOPER

‘I Always Raised My Hand’

Herschend’s Jane Cooper discusses women in the industry, leadership

by Michael Switow

When Jane Cooper, the president and chief operating officer of Herschend Family Entertainment (HFE), started her career in the attractions industry, there were few, if any, women who could serve as role models or mentors.

“I spent most of my life trying to be a business person, not a business woman,” Cooper told a sold-out crowd during the Amusement Parks and Attractions Constituency Lunch. 

“If you make the guys uncomfortable, if you make the guys know that you’re a woman … ooh, it doesn’t go well,” Cooper said.

“Think about what it was like in the ’70s. There weren’t a lot of girls, OK? So if I wanted to find a mentor, it had to be a guy,” Cooper continued. “I probably had more negative experiences and bad bosses than I did good bosses, but I learned as much from those bad ones—probably more—than I did from the good ones. But where I am now in terms of age and experience, I feel much more of an obligation to ‘Let’s talk about this a little bit more.’”

A 40-year veteran of the attractions industry, Cooper’s first job was as a merchandise associate at Kings Island in the early 1970s. Over the course of her career, she has served as the chief executive of two regional theme park companies—Paramount, and now at HFE, which is the United States’ largest family-owned themed attractions company. She is also one of only two women to chair IAAPA’s board.

“[Cooper] truly may be the most accomplished woman in the history of our industry,” Hank Salemi, Six Flags Great America’s park president, said to loud applause. “We owe you a great load of thanks for what you’ve accomplished and what you’ve done.”

Reflecting on her career, Cooper identified several traits that contributed to her success: risk-taking, self-confidence, and commitment.

“I always raised my hand. I always said, let me try that,” she recalled, adding that aspiring leaders shouldn’t hesitate to share their points of view.

Cooper also advised leaders to seek guidance and support: “I’ll ask anybody a question. I’ll make the decision, but I want to know what all their points of view are. I make a better decision because I have all their input.”

Since Cooper joined HFE in 2006, the company has expanded its footprint with the acquisition of several new properties. Wild Adventures in Valdosta, Georgia, was added in 2007, a pair of aquariums in 2008, and the Harlem Globetrotters in 2013. The latter surprised many observers, but Cooper explained the basketball team provides wholesome family entertainment—consistent with HFE’s mission—as well as cash flow during the winter months, when most of the company’s other properties are closed. 

She emphasized the importance of metrics, not just for determining corporate strategy, but also to provide direction to team members.

“It’s really important that people know what the goal is and that it’s measurable,” Cooper said. Fostering a great working environment is also key.

“Our guest experience can never go beyond our employee experience,” she added.

Cooper is determined to provide younger women today with more female role models than she had as a youth. In addition to being chair of the IAAPA Foundation, whose mission is to cultivate tomorrow’s global attractions leaders, she welcomes opportunities to assist others.

“I have a real passion for education. If I can help somebody get to the next step, I’m happy to do it,” Cooper concluded. “I’m always there if somebody asks.”