As told to Max Chafkin
Intensely private, careful with his words--almost tenaciously bland--Kenneth Feld seems an unlikely standard bearer for P.T. Barnum's circus. Yet in a world of PETA lawsuits (Feld won his latest court battle with the animal rights group last year) and competition from all manner of media, a little cool-headed thinking can go a long way. Though Feld has produced the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus since 1970, his transformation of the Greatest Show on Earth began in 1984, when he assumed sole ownership and leadership of the troubled enterprise after his father's sudden death. He has presided over the transformation of a $70 million-a-year touring circus into a $750 million production company that has performed in 60 countries, with 2,000 employees, Disney-themed ice shows, licensed products, and the occasional Broadway musical. In the process, Feld has become an expert in business ranging from railcar refurbishment to elephant breeding.
More than anything in my life, I always wanted to go into business with my father. He started with a drugstore in Washington, D.C., in 1945, three years before I was born. The drugstore had a record section that eventually became the whole store, and he went out looking for talent, mostly in local churches. He recorded a group called the Pilgrim Travelers, which included Lou Rawls and Sam Cooke, and eventually he started touring these acts. That's how he learned the arena business.
Ringling Brothers went broke, folding the tent for the last time in July 1956. By this time my father was touring with people like Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and Buddy Holly. He went to John Ringling North, who was the 51 percent owner of the circus, and offered to take it to indoor arenas and stadiums. The circus turned around, with my father as the promoter for almost all the cities. By 1967, North was spending most of his time out of the country. My father--with my uncle and the former mayor of Houston--bought the circus for $8 million.
I was in college at the time, the Boston University School of Management. The following summer he sent me to Eastern Europe to recruit performers. I would go to these circus schools and sit under a tent for three days while a government official would bring in every single circus performer in the country. I would see 300 acts, and then negotiate with the government of Poland or Bulgaria. Then I would bring them over, and they'd perform with Ringling. That was my basic training.
The craziest act I ever hired was a five-foot-tall woman from East Germany who came on stage with 11 polar bears. I also once hired a fire-eater who always smelled like liquor. He used it instead of lighter fluid.
My father would sit in the dressing room, smoke a cigar, and talk to everybody between shows. He was charismatic, the kind of individual you met for five minutes and remembered for the rest of your life.
We were meeting with Ruth Handler, the president of Mattel (NYSE:MAT) and the mother of Barbie, trying to sell her on a TV show concept. She said, "You know, I'd be really interested in buying the circus," and so in 1971 we sold to Mattel for $50 million. We continued to operate it. Unfortunately it was a stock deal, and the stock proceeded to go down from $50 a share to about 50 cents a share.
No one at Mattel understood the circus--there were all these promises of this terrible word synergy, and they never really came about. By 1982, Mattel was selling off all its noncore businesses. My dad and I put up $3 million, borrowed $19 million, and bought it back.
I was with him when he died two years later. It was very sudden. My mother had died when I was nine, and he and I had the absolute closest relationship that I think any child could have with a parent. We never talked about succession planning--or estate planning, unfortunately. And now I have this company, with all these hundreds of people who love him, and I'm marked as the boss's son.
My father once said, "The good Lord never meant for the circus to be owned by a big company." This is a family business. Two of my three daughters are involved today: Nicole is a producer of the circus, and Alana produces Playhouse Disney Live. We talk about the future a lot and are working toward a time when one or both of them will take over--if they want to.
Everyone thinks they're in a unique business, but the circus business really is unique. Our fixed costs are much higher than any other form of live entertainment. Every new production is as costly as the costliest Broadway show. We have three touring companies--each costs many millions of dollars.
Disney on Ice has eight companies and has performed in 60 countries. We're in Egypt and Venezuela and Guatemala. We keep ice floors year round all over the world. We bring our own ice, our own generators. We could set up the show in your backyard.
We had been outsourcing our sets and costumes, but in the mid-1980s the prices were getting outrageous and the quality was getting worse. So we started our own scenic shop. That grew into costumes, and then we started retrofitting our own railcars. Today, we have the two longest privately owned trains in America. Each is over a mile long. We buy used railroad cars at auction, gut them, and retrofit them at our facility.
I don't think there's another company that does everything soup to nuts the way we do it. We have people whose job it is to figure out how to pack and load our various shows--that's all they do. We know how to move better than anyone in the world. The federal government has approached us for guidance on logistics. We have full-time schoolteachers who travel with us to teach the child performers. It's like a town without a Zip code.
The Center for Elephant Conservation is the furthest thing from a profit center I could imagine--it costs $60,000 a year per elephant. But it's still an important part of our business. It started as a breeding program, in case we were no longer able to import elephants, and today we have 54 Asian elephants, the largest sustainable herd in the Western Hemisphere. We also offer elephant breeding and elephant sperm for artificial insemination. The Fort Worth Zoo had a female that would not breed successfully with the zoo's male, so they selected one of our elephants. He impregnated her, and the baby is due in a year.
Sure, we've got enemies. But that's a part of business and a part of life. PETA has an agenda, and it's great at misrepresenting facts. I don't care. It's easy for me to stand up and be proud of what we do. What we do is great.
Young people today have a difficult time deciphering what's real and what's not. If you go to a movie and see the digital effects, you don't know what's really real. With that has come a loss of appreciation for the skill that these performers have. But there's nothing like live entertainment. It gives you an adrenaline rush. No matter what in the world happens, there's never going to be a substitute for what we do.