The most watched post-Super Bowl episode of the CBS hit Undercover Boss featured Joel Manby, the CEO of Herschend Family Entertainment, America's largest family-run theme park company. He runs a diverse group of businesses, including Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri, and Stone Mountain Park outside of Atlanta, his home.
I caught up with Manby, a refugee from the corporate culture of pre-bailout General Motors, at Silver Dollar City's 50th anniversary party. Manby had plenty to say about the prime-time experience. Just as pointedly, he spoke out about the lack of responsibility that modern corporations demonstrate to their employees and about the huge public relations gamble his company took by agreeing to participate in the network show.
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Herschend Family Entertainment prides itself on perpetuating Christian ethics, and Manby feels that his Undercover Boss experience showed the the entire nation that the company is not run like every other business. Instead of an ever-inflating bottom line, he says, HFE attends to the needs of its least fortunate workers.
Before Undercover Boss was taped, the company had established a fund that assists down-on-their-luck employees, but his experience on the program taught him that it wasn't being tapped as much as he would have liked. After Manby hung out on the show with some of his workers, including a student stretched thin by work demands and a mother whose irregular work schedule made it impossible to arrange child care, HFE implemented new programs to make his employees' lives easier, including a scholarship and an expanded child care assistance program.
One of the beneficiaries is Albert Sandford, whom Manby awarded with a scholarship after the undercover boss met the employee on the show. I talked to Sandford on the job at Silver Dollar City. Our conversation, which was taped at his work station by the front gates of the amusement park, appeared on WalletPop yesterday.
It all sounds like the up-with-people moral at the end of the movie 9 to 5. That's a nice coincidence, since Dolly Parton's Dollywood, in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., is one of the theme parks that Manby oversees. And in a year that saw some Americans rebel against codifying adequate health care for all taxpayers, it's ironic that Undercover Boss, and its strong message of mercy and community through better governance, has been one of the most popular shows in red states and blue.
Manby's turn on Undercover Boss seems to counter modern Harvard Business School venality. While the business community seems to obsess over ever-inflating cash returns and celebrates anything that fattens the bottom line, HFE, to hear Manby tell it, will have better and happier employees, and thus a better product, if some of those hefty profits are turned back toward the people who helped make them.
It's enough to spark a lively debate about whether a company with self-avowed Christian values is, when those values are faithfully applied, more of a liberal instrument of social justice than something thought of as traditionally conservative.
Watch the complete episode of Undercover Boss with Joel Manby and Herschend Family Entertainment by clicking here.
Here's how Albert Sandford told his side of the story:
'Undercover Boss' of Silver Dollar City in Branson speaks out