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Conversation with a CEO: Kenneth Feld

Kenneth Feld and Moez Limayem

By Alyssa Clementi

In 2014, Forbes opened a story profiling Kenneth Feld by calling him the hardest working man in show business. The son of an entertainer who bought Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® Circus, Feld grew up under the big top and took over the business in the 1980s.

Guests who attended the USF Muma College of Business' Sept. 28 "Conversation with a CEO" event found that the chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment has grown up in both the show and the business sides of entertainment.

As a young boy, Feld grew up under the big top after his father, Irvin Feld, bought the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1967. Surrounded by trapeze artists, fire-eaters, and lion tamers, Feld developed an eye for an amazing act. Decades later, the Feld family has built an empire from the ground up, with Feld Entertainment managing what is now the second largest circus industry in the world.

The Florida-based corporation – now the world's largest live entertainment company – employs 3,000 people and puts on 5,000+ shows per year that are enjoyed by 30 million guests in 78 nations. More people attend a Feld Entertainment production per year than all Broadway shows combined.

"We didn't set out to build an empire," said Feld, opening the conversation by talking about his early days in the business.

In the summer of 1968, Feld had what others may have considered one of the most interesting jobs a young man could have: to travel Europe to identify and recruit talent for the family circus shows. This launched the Boston University student into the family business, which, at that time, was solely focused on the circus.

Feld was eager to learn the ropes from his father. One of the first lessons he learned, he told USF Muma College of Business Dean Moez Limayem, was to listen more than you talk – at least at first.

"My father said, 'never say anything unless it is brilliant,' so I didn't say anything for about the first two years in the business," Feld said, recalling his first months on the job.

"Every night, we would rehash the day, so my graduate degree basically came from the dinner table with my father," Feld continued. "He would ask me what I would do differently next time. I learned more from failure than success."

Feld wasn't one to shy away from talking about lessons learned from failure at the conversation, the second in a series of executive conversations between the dean and regional business leaders.

"My father was always one to take chances," said Feld, who went on to talk about one of the first chances he took in the business. After Feld Entertainment acquired an ice show company in Europe, he saw an opportunity to prove to his father he could handle more complicated business deals.

He made the deal and the show did less business than the family had ever seen. Then he came up with a risky solution.

"I went to Disney, pitched them my idea of an ice capade-like show, and was escorted out of the office. Apparently, they did not like my idea," Feld laughed. "As I was leaving, I yelled out the idea of putting actual Disney characters on ice."
Disney executives were intrigued and the conversation continued. It led to a 35+ year partnership between Feld Entertainment and Disney that began with a year-to-year contract to create the now-global phenomenon of Disney On Ice.

The show (and its yearly contract) was successful until 1984, when the unexpected passing of Irvin Feld rocked the Feld Entertainment empire, leaving Kenneth Feld in charge. Around the same time, Michael Eisner took over the top leadership spot at Disney. Eisner created a new contract for Feld Entertainment and the Disney On Ice show, requiring the show to expand out of the country before the contracted five years were up.

"We got into the global business by accident," said Feld. After meeting with Jimmy Osmond of the Osmond family, a new Disney On Ice show was pitched, produced and moved to Japan. In 1986, the Japanese Disney On Ice premiered, catapulting Feld Entertainment to the top of the nation's show-business elite. Japan is now Feld Entertainment's largest single market outside of the United States. Feld entertainment now holds business in 78 countries, with 45 percent of its total revenue coming from countries outside of America.

After partnering with Disney for more than 20 years, Feld Entertainment decided to take a new risk, creating a unique show for an animated movie that was still in the works. That movie, "Frozen," was presented to the Feld team as storyboards. All Feld knew about the movie was from the sketches, still on paper, without voices, music, or animation. They had no idea if the movie would be a success, or a flop, but they decided to invest in an ice show.

"We were selling a product before the product is even made," said Feld on creating shows based in-production Disney movies. "It's about looking not at what's there, but what can be there."

"Frozen" hit theatres in November of 2013, and since its release, has become the highest-grossing animated film of all time, raking in $1.2 billion worldwide. In September of 2014, Disney On Ice: Frozen premiered, selling 2 million tickets in the first two months.Disney On Ice: Frozen has continued to be one of the most successful shows globally that Feld Entertainment puts on.

Today, Feld Entertainment also produces Monster Jam, Marvel Universe Live, and numerous other shows globally.
A family business in every sense of the word – the next generation of the Feld family is involved in the company. Feld works alongside daughters, executive vice presidentsNicole Feld and Alana Feld, and chief operating officer Juliette Feld. Asked about how he introduced his daughters to the business, Feld recalled that he required each of them to work outside of the company for a short period. He also required each of them to clearly communicate how and where they could contribute to the company and what their vision for their role looked like – on paper.

"I had each of them write a paper about it," he said, pointing out that it is important for family businesses to set expectations for the next generation early. Feld holds tight the rule of no spouses in the business, and encourages his daughters to move around different areas of the company, to stay out of their comfort zone.

"It was important that my daughters learned respect for everyone," said Feld. "They had no say in the business until they proved themselves."

Feld noted that the business has changed over the last 50 years and one of the biggest challenges his daughters will face is the changing viewing habits of Millenials. They are used to experiences rather than shows, he said. They want to watch on big screens, interact with the performers using apps, and use social media in ways unheard of even a few years ago, he said.

"Analytics are a huge part of the entertainment business now," he said. The company looks at analytics for everything from dynamic pricing to show elements.

"If something isn't working, the numbers will tell us and we can change the show quickly," he said. "We can adjust pricing or other things based on what the data is telling us."

While the company may look quite different from the circus that Feld joined in 1967, for Feld, one thing has remained constant: his love for the show. Asked about his favorite show or his favorite part of the business, Feld noted that he loves them all but he doesn't like to look back.

"My favorite act is always the next one," said Feld.

Kenneth Feld participated in the second of the USF Muma College of Business Conversation with a CEO series on Sept. 28. The invitation-only series, which kicked-off with Jabil CEO Mark Mondello in March, features a lineup of notable CEOs. Tech Data CEO Bob Dutkowsky is next in the series, scheduled for Nov. 18. Coca-Cola Beverages Florida Chair and CEO Troy Taylor will be featured in April. For more information, email Melody Hardy.