By Joan Tupponce
Most CEOs wouldn’t have the boldness to walk into a business meeting dressed in a tutu. Kenneth Feld, chairman and CEO of Vienna-based Feld Entertainment, isn’t most CEOs.
Feld Entertainment is the parent company of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Two years ago, when a group of clowns struggled to come up with a new routine, Feld called a meeting. He arrived in a tutu borrowed from a costume rack. “They started cracking up,” recalls Feld’s daughter Alana. “He told them, ‘If I can be funny, you can be funny.’ They got the message right away.”
Feld’s duties as head of the largest live-production entertainment company in the country are never boring. What other Virginia CEO has to balance the demands of elephants, ice skaters and Monster trucks?
Ringling Bros.’ treatment of elephants, in fact, prompted a lawsuit by a former employee and coalition of animal protection groups including the ASPCA. The suit alleges that the circus’ use of chains and “bullhooks” (or guides) to control its Asian elephants violates the Endangered Species Act. Feld staunchly defends the circus’ practices. “We are the greatest advocates of animal welfare in the world,” he says. “We practice it 24/7.”
The case was tried in February and March in U.S. District Court in Washington. The litigants are awaiting a ruling by Federal Judge Emmett G. Sullivan.
Besides the circus, Feld Entertainment produces Disney On Ice, Disney Live! and Disney’s High School Musical Summer Celebration. The company’s increasingly diverse portfolio also includes a consumer products division; production facilities in Florida; two trains and, since September, Feld Motor Sports, a show with vehicles ranging from Monster trucks to hot rods. Feld also owns the Ringing Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation, a 200-acre facility in central Florida. “What the public sees is the tip of the iceberg,” Feld says.
As a show business promoter, Feld puts as much emphasis on the business as he does the show. “You can’t neglect the business in show business or you won’t have the show,” he says. Unlike most other companies in Virginia, Feld Entertainment has not been hurt by the economic downturn. Families are still coming to the big top. “Our business has done extremely well this year. Attendance is up 12 percent,” Feld says. He attributes the increase to the fact that more people are staying home on vacations. “They still want to entertain their families,” he adds. “Ringling Bros. is a huge value. They know what they are going to get.”
Circus ticket prices, which vary by market, are slightly lower this year than last year. “We’ve been strategically discounting tickets,” explains Feld. “We want to be affordable to everyone.” Ringling Bros. is accommodating to its venue operators as well as its audience, according to Barry Geisler, general manager of the George Mason University Patriot Center in Fairfax County. “They are the most professional family show organization we deal with, and we deal with them all,” he says.
The Patriot Center is not a stand-alone arena. That situation could create problems dealing with the circus, which uses countless trailers and lots of equipment. “Feld makes it very easy on us,” says Geisler. “Because of their incredible organizational skills, they minimize the impact of the circus on a busy campus.”
The Feld family has been the face of Ringling Bros. since 1967 when Kenneth Feld’s father, Irvin, acquired the circus from John Ringling North in a ceremony at Rome’s Colosseum. Kenneth Feld became CEO when his father died in 1984.
The business now extends to the family’s third generation. Feld’s two oldest daughters — Nicole, 30, and Alana, 28 — work with him. (His youngest daughter, Juliette, 25, is not involved in Feld Entertainment.)
Matthew Rutherford, a management professor at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business, says that type of longevity is “exceedingly rare. Most family businesses don’t make it to the third generation.”
“A family business is tough,” Feld acknowledges. “A lot of what it has to do with is the burden of following success. I have been successful, and that sets the bar quite high for my daughters. I wanted them to come into the company knowing they contributed something more than their last name.”
Nicole joined Feld Entertainment in 2001 and in 2004 became the first female circus producer in the history of Ringling Bros. Alana signed on in 2003 and in 2006 produced the first Doodlebops Live! tour, a rock’n’roll show for young children based on Cookie Jar Productions characters. Both women were named executive vice presidents in 2007.
Later this year, they will co-produce the 140th edition of the circus.
“This is the first joint project we have had together where we are working in tandem,” explains Nicole, who acknowledges the pressure the two will feel. “A lot of eyes are on us, waiting and watching what we are going to do. We are going to blow everyone away.”
The Feld sisters grew up in the shadow of the circus. Alana recalls the surprise on guests’ faces at her seventh birthday party when an elephant lumbered into the backyard. “It wasn’t that unusual for us to see an elephant in the yard,” she says. “It was ordinary.”
Unlike his daughters, Feld didn’t grow up in the midst of elephants and clowns. When he was young, his father owned a record store chain called Super Music City in Washington, D.C. Irvin Feld later marketed and promoted recording artists in the D.C. area. Intrigued by the world of entertainment, Kenneth Feld began promoting rock concerts for performers such as Donovan and Sly & The Family Stone while he was a Boston University student. After he graduated in 1970, though, Feld put that interest aside to join his father in managing the circus.
Feld’s first job was to find performers. The talent search has become easier with the advent of YouTube. Performers often post videos of their acts on the popular Web site. Kenneth and his staff may check out an act on the Internet, but it won’t be booked until someone from the circus has seen it firsthand several times. “We’ve never bought an act sight unseen,” says Kenneth. “It’s too easy to get fooled.”
Feld Entertainment now has about 2,800 employees worldwide. Many work in one of Ringling’s three touring units — Red, Blue and Gold. The Red and Blue units travel 30,000 miles annually on privately owned trains, each a mile long.
The Gold Unit is trucked to smaller cities. Each unit travels to about 40 cities. The company’s assets include its 54 Asian elephants, six of which are the subject of the lawsuit. Feld points to the company’s Florida facility as evidence of its regard for animals. Since 1995, the Center for Elephant Conservation has been the site of 22 births. The latest was a 250-pound male born on Jan. 19, the day before the presidential inauguration. His name is Barack.