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Cover Story - July 2016

New Six Flags CEO John Duffey promises to keep building on his company’s positive momentum

by Jeremy Schoolfield

People don’t often think “more of the same” is a good thing. But in the case of Six Flags and its new CEO, John Duffey, more of the same will actually be a welcome change.

The first decade of the new millennium was not kind to Six Flags Entertainment Corporation. The world’s largest regional theme park operator filed for bankruptcy in June 2009, bookended by back-to-back contentious leadership changes. By the summer of 2010, the Texas-based company’s stock was hovering around $7 a share.

Into this quagmire stepped two men with a history of helping troubled businesses not just survive, but thrive. In August 2010, Jim Reid-Anderson was named chairman, president, and CEO of Six Flags, while Duffey became the company’s new CFO. The dynamic duo had worked together for more than a decade in the healthcare sector; only a few years prior, they helped medical diagnostic equipment manufacturer Dade Behring recover from similar circumstances before eventually selling the company for 10 times its initial value.

JOHN DUFFEY ON LEADERSHIP: “I’ve been in a senior management position at a number of publicly traded companies, so I know how to drive shareholder value. It starts with making sure you set the right strategy, communicate that strategy effectively so people can understand it, and then it’s all about execution.”

Reid-Anderson and Duffey worked with their senior management team to quickly establish a new overarching strategy for Six Flags involving a combination of fiscally responsible innovation, savvy marketing, and employee engagement, all geared toward improving the company’s relationship with both its guests and investors. Apparently, they executed that plan to perfection, as 2015 was Six Flags’ sixth consecutive year of record financial performance; as of press time, its stock has been trading near $60 a share for months. Including dividends paid out, the shares are up nine times their value since Reid-Anderson and Duffey joined the company.

On Feb. 18, 2016, Six Flags announced its board of directors had reorganized the company’s two top executives’ responsibilities, keeping both in place but altering their scope of work: Reid-Anderson was named executive chairman of the board so he could maintain his influence on long-term strategy, while Duffey was promoted to president and CEO, taking over Six Flags’ overall day-to-day management.

As Duffey acquainted himself with this new role, the 55-year-old Detroit native spent a good portion of the spring on the road, hosting town-hall meetings with employees at Six Flags’ 18 theme and water parks in North America. He took time out from his visit to Six Flags New England in Massachusetts to speak exclusively with Funworld about the leadership transition, how he plans to maintain and exceed the company’s recent successes, and much more.


You’ve worked with Jim Reid-Anderson for quite a while now. What allows two executives to foster a partnership like that?

Jim and I have worked extremely well together for 20 years because we understand what it takes to manage a publicly traded company and what it takes to drive success. We are also very much aligned in terms of both strategy and operational excellence, and we happen to get on very well together personally. We are lucky to have a great management team, and I look to them to assist me in executing our strategy. We also have a great team of employees who are the backbone of our company. They delight our guests, develop innovative thrills, and keep our parks safe. My management style is based on consensus and open communication. Our leadership team members travel to our parks throughout the year to reinforce our strategy, update our current goals, and listen to our team’s ideas about how we can improve our operations.

These town-hall meetings are a big part of your employee communication, then?

It’s a standard practice that we have had in place for a number of years. We start by meeting with the senior management team at each park, and they’ll outline their overall goals and objectives for the year. Then we meet with full-time employees at the park in a town-hall setting. The goal is to reinforce our strategy and also talk about where we’ve been and, particularly, where we’re going. We outline our financial objectives, as well as where we’d like to take our guest and employee satisfaction scores. We also listen extremely carefully to all their thoughts and concerns and, as a result, some of these all-employee meetings can run up to three hours long.

The past couple Six Flags leadership transitions occurred during challenging times for the company. How does this changeover compare?

It is a totally different situation from previous management changes. Jim and I have worked together at Six Flags for the past five and a half years, and the company is extremely well positioned. We’ve just come off our sixth consecutive year of record growth, and we have great momentum. So, the board thought it was an opportune time to split the role of chairman and CEO. Jim remains with the company and will lead the board, and Jim and I will work closely on overall strategy, our international growth opportunities, organizational development, and setting the long-term direction of the company. I run the company on a day-to-day basis, so now all operational decisions are led by me, including pricing, in-park offerings, and new capital.

In the past, you’ve joined a company that was facing difficult circumstances. What is it like for you to assume this new role with Six Flags doing so well?

It feels extremely good. Six Flags had been struggling for a number of years, so we had the opportunity to come in at a pretty difficult time during its history, reset the strategy, and move the company in the right direction. Now it’s totally different; Six Flags is in a great position, but we will never rest on our laurels. We have excellent guest-satisfaction scores, high employee morale, and record financial performance and shareholder returns, and we are intending to take our performance to new record levels.

Over the past six years, what key factors led to the company’s success?

It starts with our strategy—we have a simple focus on being the leading regional theme park company.

Second, we have great people at Six Flags who are dedicated and hard-working and focused on providing our guests with the ultimate experience while they’re visiting our parks.

Third is innovation; we strive to be the leader in innovation within the industry. We’ve introduced a number of “firsts,” not just in rides and attractions, but other areas that also enhance our guests’ experiences; our all-season dining plan, for just one example.

Speaking of innovation, Six Flags has been on a roll in terms of new and exciting projects during your tenure, from hybrid coasters to dark rides and now virtual-reality coasters in 2016. What is your philosophy on innovation, and how is Six Flags a leader in this area?

Our strategy is to have news in every park every year—something that’s exciting, that we can aggressively market and draw people to our parks. We’re always looking for opportunities to provide the latest record-breaking thrill ride, and also being creative in terms of how we spend our capital dollars.

The hybrid coasters we’ve launched at seven of our parks are a perfect example of how we can take an existing roller coaster and upgrade it to an entirely new experience—at a fraction of the cost of a new coaster. The “Justice League” dark ride is a guest favorite and also was awarded Best New Attraction in 2015 by IAAPA. And in 2016 we’re taking things to the next level with virtual reality.

We’re excited about virtual reality because it’s a totally different experience for our guests. It puts them into a virtual world with a 360-degree, lifelike experience, where they can be a fighter pilot or fly like Superman. And we can take this to so many different places; ultimately, you’ll be able to get on a ride and choose which experience out of maybe four or five you want at that time. Guests will want to ride over and over again because they can select different experiences. We’ll also be able to take it into special-event areas like “Fright Fest,” which would be more of an augmented reality. Think about walking through a haunted maze with the goggles on; you can see the actual maze, but you have ghouls and zombies coming at you.

These innovative milestones have helped evolve the Six Flags guest experience under this management team’s leadership. You’ve broadened the idea of what a day at your parks can be.

It’s all about providing guests with a unique experience every time they visit one of our parks—they can get on a thrilling and innovative ride, enjoy amazing food, and superb retail options all while also sharing a fun family experience. With our season passes, memberships, and all-season dining passes, Six Flags provides guests with the perfect value option and a wonderful day out.

Six Flags is placing a strong emphasis on season passes. Can you explain that strategy and what increased season-pass sales mean for the company?

We view our season and membership passes as the ultimate value for both our guests and the company. Once a guest becomes a season-pass holder, they will visit our parks multiple times a year— meaning they get great value for their money, and we have the opportunity to provide them great experiences multiple times throughout the season. From a financial standpoint, typically over a year a season-pass holder provides more than twice the amount of revenue than a one-day ticket.

One of the real drivers of our success in this area has been our guests appreciating the value of our season passes. It starts with introducing the right types of rides and attractions to get people excited about coming to our parks. We are also investing in special events such as “Fright Fest” and “Holiday in the Park”—making guests want to visit our parks multiple times during the year. When they do that, they see the tremendous value a season pass brings.

What are your near-term goals for the company?

Near term we remain focused on enhancing guest satisfaction, introducing news in every park every year, and innovating to grow our business. That’s worked well over the last several years, so it will continue. Our guest-satisfaction and safety scores are at all-time highs, and my goal is to continue to drive those ratings up by providing unique experiences for our guests every time they visit our parks. I also want to make sure we continue to execute on our financial goals, which will ultimately drive shareholder value.

The first Six Flags-branded theme parks outside North America are scheduled to begin operating in 2019. Can you talk about the company’s international growth?

As you look long term, the opportunities we have internationally are phenomenal. We have an incredible brand that’s widely recognized throughout the world; that brand and our expertise in designing, building, and helping run parks outside the United States creates a huge opportunity for us. We’ve already signed partnership agreements in Dubai, China, and Vietnam, and think more are to come, so we’re excited about our international licensing opportunities.

What does taking the Six Flags brand worldwide do for the company?

Having an internationally recognized brand is very powerful because it provides further opportunity for growth and enhances the overall stature of the company. We want to make sure the markets we target make sense—growing populations, growing disposable incomes, and lack of entertainment options. We also want to make sure the parks will be safe, high quality, and successful if they use our brand. So it’s all about finding the right markets and the right partners we can grow with.

Can we expect even more of these types of licensing arrangements in the future?

Absolutely. There are numerous other markets we hope to tap into as we grow our international business.

What have you learned about the attractions industry during your time with Six Flags?

It’s an amazing industry—both due to the people who work in it and because our goal is to provide an escape from the stress of everyday life; it really doesn’t get any better than that. It’s a great industry to invest in, as well. It has outstanding growth opportunities, high barriers to entry, and the regional space is relatively stable in difficult economic times. I love this business, and I think it has never been stronger. It amazes me when I see the dedication people have to it—they’ve been in theme parks for their entire lives, and they’ll never leave. Over the last five and a half years, I’ve come to understand why: because it’s all about making people happy.

Six Flags’ S.C.O.R.E. Philosophy

When Jim Reid-Anderson became Six Flags chairman, president, and CEO in August 2010, he immediately set about implementing his fundamental business philosophy, which he dubs “S.C.O.R.E.” As the company’s new CEO, John Duffey says he will maintain these principles moving forward, so here’s a refresher:

Sound Strategy: Make it clear and communicate it to employees

Communication: Be open and honest with employees so they understand the company’s direction

Organization: Make sure quality leadership is in place and roles are well defined

Recognition: Tell employees when they’ve done a good job and reward them

Execution: Ensure you follow through on stated objectives

Contact Editorin-Chief Jeremy Schoolfield at jschoolfield@IAAPA.org.