SA’s “splashy” entrepreneurs of epic entertainment

The Henry Family Schlitterbahn Waterparks

0613-feature3To say that Schlitterbahn is a family operation is an understatement. Since moving to the historic German community of New Braunfels in 1966, purchasing the existing (mostly undeveloped and fairly rustic) 13- acre Landa Resort nestled next to scenic Comal River — the amenities included 34 modest screened cabins and a small swimming pool — the industrious Henry clan has gone on to create an internationally recognized watery wonderland comprising myriad (and very innovative) slides, rides, chutes and spray, all geared to providing bucket loads of thrills, chills and lots of pure familyfriendly entertainment while happily and profitably drawing more than 1 million excited visitors each year. And they did it almost single-handedly.

When practicing CPA Bob Henry and his wife, Billye, seeking a small-town lifestyle and escape from Houston, discovered bucolic New Braunfels and then the “for sale” Landa Resort, they knew they’d found their dream. Realizing the potential of this beautiful riverfront property, the senior Henrys and their three children — Gary, Jeff and Jana — began what would become an ever-growing family production that today has expanded the original Landa footprint to encompass more than 70 magical acres replete with rides, relaxing recreation areas, resort-style guest accommodations and more, while simultaneously developing other equally impressive and popular Schlitterbahn parks across Texas and in Kansas as well. So how did they do it? As son Gary explains, “Initially, we all had jobs at the resort — working in the kitchen, cleaning up after the guests, anything and everything involved in running literally, a ‘mom and pop’ hospitality enterprise.” Then perhaps tellingly, in 1967, brother Jeff and his father (both competent handymen) added a rope swing over, and a tube chute into, the river.

With those primitive enhancements, as Jeff explains, “We were suddenly in the water park business — before there was such a thing.” The business really took off after an inspirational visit in 1976 to Orlando, Fla., where Jeff and a friend were introduced to several of the nation’s first larger-scaled water-based amusement parks that featured such novel creations as concrete slides. After witnessing the same, the excited 20-year-old insisted his parents “come see” as well. Soon, the entire family was on board with plans for expansion — in real estate and entertainment offerings at their New Braunfels base. By 1979, Schlitterbahn (in German: slippery road) officially opened after the construction of a German- style tower sporting four heart-racing water slides. It was very neat and well received at the time but obviously only the beginning of what has since grown into the Henrys’ impressive privately owned H2O empire. (see page 15).

To say that Schlitterbahn is a family operation is an understatement. Since moving to the historic German community of New Braunfels in 1966, purchasing the existing (mostly undeveloped and fairly rustic) 13- acre Landa Resort nestled next to scenic Comal River — the amenities included 34 modest screened cabins and a small swimming pool — the industrious Henry clan has gone on to create an internationally recognized watery wonderland comprising myriad (and very innovative) slides, rides, chutes and spray, all geared to providing bucket loads of thrills, chills and lots of pure familyfriendly entertainment while happily and profitably drawing more than 1 million excited visitors each year. And they did it almost single-handedly. When practicing CPA Bob Henry and his wife, Billye, seeking a small-town lifestyle and escape from Houston, discovered bucolic New Braunfels and then the “for sale” Landa Resort, they knew they’d found their dream. Realizing the potential of this beautiful riverfront property, the senior Henrys and their three children — Gary, Jeff and Jana — began what would become an ever-growing family production that today has expanded the original Landa footprint to encompass more than 70 magical acres replete with rides, relaxing recreation areas, resort-style guest accommodations and more, while simultaneously developing other equally impressive and popular Schlitterbahn parks across Texas and in Kansas as well.

0613-featured2So how did they do it? As son Gary explains, “Initially, we all had jobs at the resort — working in the kitchen, cleaning up after the guests, anything and everything involved in running literally, a ‘mom and pop’ hospitality enterprise.” Then perhaps tellingly, in 1967, brother Jeff and his father (both competent handymen) added a rope swing over, and a tube chute into, the river. With those primitive enhancements, as Jeff explains, “We were suddenly in the water park business — before there was such a thing.” The business really took off after an inspirational visit in 1976 to Orlando, Fla., where Jeff and a friend were introduced to several of the nation’s first larger-scaled water-based amusement parks that featured such novel creations as concrete slides. After witnessing the same, the excited 20-year-old insisted his parents “come see” as well. Soon, the entire family was on board with plans for expansion — in real estate and entertainment offerings at their New Braunfels base. By 1979, Schlitterbahn (in German: slippery road) officially opened after the construction of a German- style tower sporting four heart-racing water slides. It was very neat and well received at the time but obviously only the beginning of what has since grown into the Henrys’ impressive privately owned H2O empire. (see page 15).

Today, with Bob and Billye retired, older brother Gary (like his dad, a degreed CPA) is the CEO and financial whiz; Jeff, the self-taught and industry- wide recognized creative spark in charge of R & D (namely, ride development); and sister Jana, with a degree in fashion merchandising, the retail boss. Each family member has assumed the role at one time or another as general manager at the various family owned parks. Mom and Dad still weigh in on occasion. All agree it’s been and continues to be a very fun ride. In assessing their success, a large part can certainly be attributed to the enviable fact that they, distinct from one another, have “lived” this wonderful business, from the ground up, for the past 45 years.

Each has ultimately accepted varied roles appropriate to their individual strengths, growing, learning, innovating and adapting. But perhaps most importantly, they all share the same professional vision — to provide the finest in wholesome entertainment in an environment where families can bond, as the Henrys have personally done. As Jana states, “We feel that we truly create a happiness that ties people together — meaning our guests and our employees making us all seem like family. There’s just nothing neater — except maybe our Master Blaster ride!”

DAN DECKER
SeaWorld® San Antonio

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The best way to describe SeaWorld® San Antonio’s incredibly well-suited president is “company man.” At age 26, Dan Decker became a dedicated, productive and very appreciative member of the Anheuser-Busch organization that owned and operated the local park and others until 2009, and now, under new park ownership, he continues in that mindset, happily serving SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment. Initially signing on as a warehouse assistant supervisor (an entry-level position) at the SeaWorld San Diego in 1990, Decker quickly developed a corporate loyalty that’s still very much in evidence today.

Primarily because of the nurturing and encouragement he received as a new employee, the focused young man soon determined that this would be the career path that he would follow, and as a part of that future, that he would someday “be the president of one of the signature parks.” Funny how things work out. After various instructive stints at Anheuser-Busch, including positions in human resources and culinary operations, Decker found himself charged with running the St. Louis-based Grant’s Farm entertainment and zoological park (originally the homestead of the Busch family). For nine-plus years as general manager, Decker further honed the skills and abilities that would so ably serve him throughout his career progression. In that demanding position, he oversaw all aspects of the park’s operation — from infrastructure maintenance to purchasing, animal care, financial oversight and especially overall direction. What was most telling about this beneficial time, however, was his formation of the belief that paramount to the success of any business, the primary focus should not be on the customer but rather on the employee. As he says, “If you take care of your co-workers, helping them to achieve and accomplish, then they will take care of everything else. It’s a win-win for everyone — corporate headquarters, the consumers and the employee base.” The evidence of this philosophy is easy to discern when visiting the well-run, welcoming and obviously happy environs found throughout SeaWorld San Antonio.

Decker’s last assignments before assuming the leadership position at SeaWorld San Antonio were as executive assistant to the president and chairman of the board for Busch Entertainment and then director of operations. In September 1994, this corporate workaholic’s original dream was fulfilled with his promotion to park president of SeaWorld San Antonio. Since accepting that prestigious position, Decker has seen the park grow and evolve with the addition of ever more and wondrous offerings. One example is the complete revamping of the park’s old water park in 2012 into today’s Aquatica, an 18-acre watery playground filled with multiple up-close animal experiences, high-speed thrills and 42,000 square feet of relaxing sandy beaches. This was the single largest capital project in the park’s history and one of Decker’s proudest accomplishments. On a day-to-day basis, his job description varies, depending on what’s going on.

0613-featureAs he readily admits, he’s not a micro-manager but rather a boss who has surrounded himself with superior and completely trusted co-workers, and he’s not afraid to let them do their jobs. As a result, he rarely weighs in on details after having provided guidance as it pertains to the big picture. What he does do, however, that gives him an in-depth andcomprehensive perspective into the workings of “his park,” is to actually participate as a staffer — acting as a backstage grip during a performance, taking tickets, serving food, etc. No one at SeaWorld San Antonio knows and understands the complexities better than its president. Defining success for SeaWorld San Antonio is not just measured by the bottom line, and its function isn’t just providing amusement.

Decker believes the park, as a member of the community, owes a debt to that community. Aside from considerable charitable support to a variety of worthwhile local and national agencies, a more tangible example is the fact that annually the park hosts thousands of active-duty military personnel and their families as well as certified teachers, all of whom are welcomed with free admission. And of equal importance, while having fun is certainly key, Decker is also proud of the fact that most of the shows and attractions were developed as educational vehicles, each promoting an understanding of and respect for diverse water-based wildlife and man’s impact on the same. When queried about his future plans, president Decker (a California native) quickly admits to his admitted love for San Antonio. As he states, “I’ve got the best job in the best city. Why would I want to change that? I’m having a whale of a good time!”

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