Joel Manby is highly in favor of top executives going undercover in their companies.
That’s just what he did for the television show Undercover Boss. The episode in which Manby, CEO of Herschend Family Entertainment–which manages Stone Mountain Park and several other entertainment establishments–appeared aired, on CBS on March 28.
Unbeknownst to the vast majority of employees, Manby changed his appearance by growing a beard and slicking back his hair and worked in three of his company’s theme parks–Stone Mountain Park, Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., and Silver Dollar City in Branson, Mo.
At Stone Mountain Park, Manby, under the alias “John Briggs,” was put under the wing of Howard Hobbs, one of the captains of the Ride the Ducks excursion, which takes guests on a tour of Stone Mountain aboard an amphibious vehicle that goes from land to water.
Hobbs and other workers at the Stone Mountain, Pigeon Forge and Branson parks were told that a television crew was filming John for a back-to-work documentary. John’s cover story–that he was a former auto industry worker–mirrors Manby’s real life. Before becoming CEO of Herschend, Manby was CEO of Saab and had been part of the start-up team with Saturn. The filming took place during two weeks last fall.
Hobbs, who has worked at Stone Mountain Park for six years, said he had no idea that the “trainee” was actually the top man at Herschend.
“I think it’s a good idea,” said Hobbs of management going undercover. “It’s good to get out there and to know what your people are doing.”
Asked how Manby did interacting with the passengers and giving tour information over the loud speaker, Hobbs was gracious. “He was OK,” he said. “He wasn’t bad at all.”
But on camera, Manby was challenged making a smooth delivery in rattling off facts and figures about Stone Mountain, often turning to the glib and engaging Hobbs for help.
Although he had reservations after initially being approached by producers due to concerns that it could cast a negative light on the company, Manby agreed to participate because he wanted to see how things were operating on the ground level.
He also worked spraying clean one park in the early morning hours, supervised by an employee with seven children who had lost his home in a flood. At another part, he was supervised in cleaning the outside of aquarium tanks by a woman who held several positions at the park and who had been homeless after the birth of her child. One worker, who worked as a waitress and is a single parent, told Manby, “This job is a gamble.” She explained that when servers are rotated to different sections they often don’t make enough tip money to justify coming to work–especially when they have to pay child care.
And Manby had a special connection with a young man at Silver Dollar City who came from humble beginnings (as Manby had), had worked up design ideas for theme parks and could only afford to go to school part time. The employee told “John” that he dreamed of one day being CEO of Herschend.
“I learned a lot about myself and a lot about the company,” Manby said.
In the reveal to the employees who worked with John about his real identity, the workers expressed shock and tears were shed when Manby offered one a raise, set another up to receive a scholarship and offered assistance in getting one workers home back in order.
Due to some of the experiences Manby had through going undercover, he initiated several changes at Herschend including:
• Establishing a scholarship that will allow a Herschend employee to attend college full-time and receive half of their salary.
• Making annual stipends available to employees who are single parents through the company’s Share It Forward program
• Encouraging all employees to look for needs among their co-workers and direct them to company resources
“We are a family,” said Manby. “We need to treat each other like family.”
Manby said while he would like to be treated like anybody else when he visits any of the parks, he knows he is treated differently. And he admits that during the recession when management had to cut expenses and freeze wages, he “pulled back” and avoided interacting as much with employees.
Manby, who resides in Atlanta and describes himself as an introvert, said he watched the show at home with family and friends.
Since the program aired, Manby said he has received a tremendous outpouring from employees, friends and colleagues.