Connections: Jack and Peter Herschend
Christ at the Core of an Entertainment Empire
Jack and Peter Herschend are co-owners and co-founders of Herschend Family Entertainment — 26 entertainment properties in 10 states — that began with Silver Dollar City in Branson, Mo. They visited recently with Pentecostal Evangel Editor Ken Horn.
evangel: What brought your family to the Branson area?
PETER: Jack was about 18 years old and I was about 16 when the family started coming down here in the late 1940s. Our parents, Hugo and Mary Herschend, fell in love with the Ozarks.
At that time the Ozarks were considerably different than they are today. As a matter of fact, in the area where Silver Dollar City sits today, electricity had just arrived two years earlier. There were no telephones until after 1956.
evangel: What was the beginning of Silver Dollar City like?
JACK: In 1953, we learned that the school grounds for a town that centered around the entrance of Marvel Cave had come up for sale. It was called Marble City. They had a pottery factory, a white oak furniture factory and a number of homes.
We became fascinated with rebuilding that town. We rebuilt an old tent so the people had something to do while waiting for folks to come out of the cave. In 1960, Silver Dollar City opened. Four times more people came to Silver Dollar City than had ever come to the cave, so we decided we needed to be in the theme park business rather than the cave business.
evangel: Something that has changed over the years is your relationship as brothers. You grew closer together. Talk about that.
JACK: When we were growing up, Peter would do whatever I said — and be very cheerful about it!
But as we grew up together and got into business together, we developed a great respect for the giftedness of each other. We are so different. Peter has been called — accurately, I think — a marketing genius. That is his giftedness. Mine is more on the operational end.
Everybody has heard how difficult it is to be involved in a family business. And that’s true, because you’re dealing with business issues as well as family issues. Peter and I have not had a problem because of the respect that we have for each other.
PETER: We’ve been partners for 60 years. And that’s a good track record.
evangel: How did you come to Christ?
PETER: Jack and I grew up in a home that was not involved in Christianity. Mom and Dad weren’t agnostics or atheists; Christianity just wasn’t a factor in our family. They did take us to Sunday School, which was a testimony in and of itself, because they didn’t go to church.
When we went to college at the University of Missouri in Columbia, some of our friends were Presbyterian. I hung out with them and started going to the Presbyterian student union. Jack’s wife, Sherry, and my wife, JoDee, were already Christians. They really had a big part in bringing us to the Lord.
Some time later — 44 years ago — JoDee and I went to a house meeting to hear a Spirit-filled Episcopal priest, Dennis Bennett, speak. After the first half I said to JoDee, “I am bored to tears.” All of a sudden, for the second half of the evening, what the speaker was saying came through. The power of the Holy Spirit became real, I was filled, and I came to clearly understand who Christ is to me and to the world.
JACK: Coming out of an unbelieving family, I watched Sherry and her strong faith. We were in our mid-20s, and we had three small boys. Every Sunday and Wednesday, she would be in church. But she never pushed me or made me feel inferior because I was not a believer. She just invited me and finally I said, “OK.” Then I met a traveling hardware salesman who witnessed to me for two years. Eventually it made more sense to believe than not to believe.
evangel: Talk about your core values. I know that’s something very important with Silver Dollar City, and throughout your businesses.
JACK: I believe core values start with Jesus Christ.
A core value for us is what we describe as a tasteful witness. We hope that we can season our lives tastefully, so people understand what we believe. They can see it, and we don’t have to preach it.
Another core value for me is the flag. We do a flag raising every morning. It’s an emotional time, when we ask veterans to come and be a part of flag raising. And so, a core value in our business is to be grateful that we’re Americans.
Our vision statement says that we best serve the Lord by bringing families together. We’re very conscious of every opportunity we have for a family to have a great time together. The family is the hero, not Silver Dollar City.
We also value honoring the folks who make up the Silver Dollar City and the HFE family. We honor them best by making sure that we listen to them. We make sure they feel valued. We make sure that when there’s a decision that needs to be made that will affect them, they get a chance to speak into it. The value we place on employees is a big part of our core value system.
evangel: Silver Dollar City is a different sort of theme park. I’ve had the opportunity to interact with employees, and there’s something special about it — probably because of your core values.
PETER: I think that’s right. Jack and I recently had a discussion about what we call the heart and soul of Silver Dollar City and the whole company. We have approximately 10,000 men and women who are part of the family, and hopefully, that heart and soul, that uniqueness, comes out.
We’re about honoring God, honoring Christ as our Savior, outside of church. We are in the entertainment business; we are not in the business of church. But if we do it right, then hopefully thousands of families will sense that unique heart and soul.
That heart and soul includes the freedom of our men and women to talk about Christ when it’s appropriate. It is the freedom to have church services at the park. Those are all part of the core values. And if you read our mission statement, it says that we create memories worth repeating. But one statement says it all, that we do what we do in a manner consistent with Christian values. Everything. You have to do it that way. You can’t just say, “We do that a lot.” It has to be the heart and soul.
evangel: Talk about the church services in the park.
Peter: We started the practice in the early days, and we still do it today. We have church services every Sunday in the Wilderness Church. The church was one of the six original buildings that constituted Silver Dollar City in 1960.
evangel: A couple of years ago, Joel Manby, your corporate CEO, was on the program Undercover Boss. The show revealed some pretty interesting things about Silver Dollar City.
JACK: I was surprised that CBS left the mention of Christian values in the segment. It was a total surprise. Seventeen million people saw that Joel is a committed Christian and a dynamic leader. Plus, Joel had the opportunity to rub shoulders with the folks who make it happen in our company.
PETER: We did not have editorial control of the show. We didn’t get to say, “Use this scene and not that scene.” One story stood out. Richard, one of our employees, was living with his three children and two adopted children in a trailer because their house had been flooded. They finally moved into another house, but it was extremely small. Joel was so touched by this that he did two things. He asked Richard, “Why didn’t you apply to ‘Share It Forward’ [a special company fund for people in need]?”
Richard’s answer was classic. “That’s for folks who really need it.” Well, any employee could make an application to the fund on his behalf, so Joel did exactly that. In the end, we were able to put new windows and doors, and a second bathroom, in Richard’s house. Our maintenance and construction guys went over and did all the work.
I’d like to add a sidebar to that story as well. We had an employee named Mercedes who was cleaning our aquarium in Camden, N.J. On the show she was instructing Joel how to clean the aquarium. She was a single mom wanting to get ahead. As a result of his experience with Mercedes, Joel established a company fund for single moms living below the poverty line. It would apply to single dads as well.
evangel: What would you say to a Christian who is either starting a business or working in his or her own business today?
JACK: First of all, surround yourself with the right people. What the Bible says about being “equally yoked” makes sense in a business. At some point during the growth of your business, it’s good to have folks who are not believers working for you — because it’s an opportunity to witness. But as you get started, it’s really important to have Christians with you.
There are other key principles as well: being a good listener, treating people with respect, learning from mistakes.
evangel: After all these years, do you still enjoy what you’re doing?
PETER: Absolutely! What we do today is different from what we did in the beginning. We both walked around with hammers in our back pockets 60 years ago. It’s still a joy. We’ve been blessed, no question.
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