Critics savaged the show, calling it “Ringless Barnum and Bailey.” The circus salespeople rioted.
“It was a big waste of money . . . an enormous mistake,” said Dominique Jando of the San Francisco School of Circus Arts, who for years worked with Ringling rival Big Apple Circus. “Everybody was appalled. You don’t go to the circus to see technology. You go for the spectacle. It was such a poor reading of what their audience was and what [Ringling] was. Without the rings, it looked like a show on a parking lot.”
Nicole Feld’s father, Feld Entertainment Chairman Kenneth Feld, whose motto is “make your mistakes early,” stepped in. A director revamped the production. Within days, something resembling the three rings returned — along with the tigers, trapezes and tradition.
Looking back, Nicole, 34, acknowledges that “we messed with expectations.” She takes blame for the show, which came after extensive marketing research.
She chalks it up to a lesson learned on the path she and two sisters, Alana, 32, and Juliette, 28, are navigating as they prepare to assume control of the family’s Tysons Corner-based, billion-dollar entertainment empire.
Observers are wondering if they are up to it. Or, if not, whether they will leave behind a company with valuable pieces to be picked over by competitors.
After all, it’s grown well beyond the big top.
Feld Entertainment shows draw 30 million customers a year across six continents and employ 3,000 associates, including daredevil drivers and trapeze artists, accountants and railroad engineers and costume makers. On any given night, more than 80,000 people watch a Feld production, be it Ringling, Monster Jam, Disney on Ice, Nuclear Cowboyz or motocross.
Even with Ringling as a national institution, Kenneth Feld, 63, knows better than anyone that the market is fickle. He’s survived public relations and business battles as well as a few flops of his own over the years. The company’s brands are strong but — as the 2006 debacle proves — must be protected at all costs.
“This is not a toy,” Kenneth said. “This is business. That’s a huge responsibility.”
In 1984, he almost lost the company when his father, Irvin, died suddenly of a heart attack at 66 and Kenneth scraped by to keep control and pay estate taxes. It took him 15 years to settle up with the IRS.
Then, as now, a family legacy was at stake. Irvin was a pioneer, bringing big-name music acts such as the Rolling Stones and the Who to the Baltimore-Washington region. He later bought, sold and bought back Ringling.
Kenneth has built on his father’s success with two big achievements: Disney on Ice, which rivals think is one of the most profitable live shows anywhere, and Siegfried & Roy, the exotic animal and magic show that sold out its 1,500-seat theater at Wynn’s Mirage hotel for more than 13 years straight, grossing more than $1 billion and revolutionizing Las Vegas entertainment.
“Strategically, the biggest unknown I have is not about running the business,” Kenneth said. “It’s not about doing better and improving the existing business. What I’m not sure of is what is the next big thing that may not exist now? Will they see it?”
The daughters said they feel the pressure.
“We think about it a lot,” Nicole said. “It always sits there in the back of your mind . . . that phrase: ‘It takes three generations to ruin a business. The first generation builds it. The second generation grows it. And the third one usually destroys it.’ We live with that every single day.”
The family business
If Kenneth Feld could have one do-over, he would have worked somewhere else first. He jumped straight from graduation at Boston University in 1970 to his father’s show-biz company.
“I called my dad after I took my last final and said, ‘I want to go to work,’ ” said Feld, in his memorabilia-filled office overlooking Tysons Corner, which the company will vacate as it begins a multiyear transfer to Florida’s Gulf Coast. “He says, ‘Okay. Come to New York. The show’s here.’ And I went to work, and 43 years later I’m still going to work every day.”
Irvin Feld started in Washington, where he sold toiletries door-to-door. In the 1930s, he opened a discount pharmacy on Seventh Street NW. He set up loudspeakers outside and played music to draw customers, selling so many records that he renamed the store Super Music City. In time, he moved into rock-and-roll promotion, the precursor to Feld Entertainment.
Kenneth and his sister, Karen, grew up in Northwest Washington. By the time he went to work for his father, the company had a toehold in New York and Florida, too. It had a big production and transportation base in Florida, the ancestral winter home of the Ringling Circus and repository for thousands of circus costumes, memorabilia, trains and other artifacts.
To support its growth and global ambition, the company recently bought an old General Electric facility in Florida, where it will consolidate its various businesses. It will relocate most of its Tysons Corner headquarters staff, leaving a residual presence in Washington, where Kenneth and his wife, Bonnie, maintain a home.
“I don’t have any regrets because I’ve done too well and I love it,” said Feld, who worked summers as a teenager — selling programs, counting tickets — for his father. “But if I had anything to do all over again, I would have worked someplace else in some other business for a year or two.”
Working elsewhere, “gives you a better understanding of all the people you are working with,” he said.
Feld never brought up a career in the company when the girls were growing up. He didn’t want them to feel obligated.
“I never thought about working anyplace else,” he said. “I did love this business. But maybe if it had been selling shoes, I would not have liked it so much.”
He wanted his daughters to go out and explore the world.
“I told them that as soon as they were no longer going to school, you have to work someplace and it can’t be here,” Feld said.
Nicole was a photo editor at People magazine. Alana worked in advertising and media research in New York. And Juliette, the youngest, worked in public relations before earning an MBA from Emory University in Atlanta.
They found their way back to the family business. All three are executive vice presidents, with salaries that afford them lives in some of the nation’s most exclusive neighborhoods — Nicole and Alana are in Manhattan, Juliette in Chicago. Even so, they have to show up to work and they have to take orders. They all report to the company’s chief operating officer, Mike Shannon, who determines their compensation and conducts twice-a-month telephone meetings, at which the future owners are briefed on the company and feedback is exchanged.
Kenneth Feld is not invited to participate in those calls, although from time to time he tries to horn in on them.
This is a way to learn the business just like Kenneth had to learn it. He apprenticed with his father, who spent weekends traveling the country, watching the circus, attending to details, whether it was bookings, contracts or production.
Nicole spent her first year with the company as his assistant, following him around, soaking up everything.
On one occasion early on, Kenneth turned to his daughter and said, “We’re going into a meeting. I’m not really sure what it’s about,” Nicole recalled. “But don’t be surprised by anything that comes out of my mouth. And another thing,” he told her. “Don’t speak unless what you have to say is absolutely brilliant.”
When it comes to the health of the business, Feld said, there is little room for sentimentality.
“The first responsibility is to the customer,” he said. “The second responsibility is to all of our other associates. That’s a huge responsibility. After that . . . sure we want to make money and live comfortably. But that’s third.”
Sometimes, it feels like the ultimate high-wire act. “You have to put aside all the family stuff,” Nicole said. “He stresses that we need to be decisive.”
They are expected to create new shows — which is where Kenneth believes the family has the most valuable impact on the company. Nicole recalls when she joined the company, “one of the things he really wanted me to learn and focus on was finding the acts for the circus,” she said. “That’s one of the things he did when he first started.”
“So I called him,” recalls Nicole, who was scouring Eastern Europe for circus acts. “He was on vacation with our mother. . . . It was 2 in the morning and I called him in the middle of dinner or something. And I said I really tried to hire this act, but I just couldn’t make the deal. Anyway, I said, I’ll be home tomorrow. And he said, ‘Don’t come back until you get another act.’ ”
Alana Feld, who has a head for numbers and spreadsheets, once pitched her dad on her dream job. He turned her down cold.
She was in Amsterdam learning the international operations for Disney on Ice. After a year, she sent her father an e-mail proposing a job focused on the family’s philanthropy.
“I said: ‘That job doesn’t exist here. And I’m not big on creating jobs,’ ” Kenneth said. He listed several opportunities, including a sales job built around a Disney Channel kids show called “Doodlebops.” Alana took it.
That level of pressure, Kenneth said, comes with the business.
“My theory about stress is: Give it to everybody else,” he said. “So I’ve probably given them more stress than a father should give his daughters. But that’s part of what the business is.”
Each daughter has different strengths. Nicole is comfortable with the talent. Alana is all business, both in meetings and hiring. Juliette has a knack for strategy.
Kenneth can handle performers and get the most out of them. He also has a gift for knowing what the public wants, while he relentlessly trains on the bottom line. It’s not clear which daughter, if any, combines the same skill set.
Nicole wanted to become a photographer growing up and attended New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. She is the most creative and most comfortable mingling with the performers, whether they be circus acrobats or ice skaters.
“She has a very good eye . . . an artistic flair,” said Kenneth, who is known for battling with his stars, like his former superclown Bello Nock, to coax better performances.
Nicole has her own approach. Alana says her sister has an “ability to really go and talk to people and find out . . . what it is that’s going to motivate them and really reach them.”
Alana grew up wanting to be a businesswoman. She insists that meetings stay on point and on schedule. Armed with her Excel spreadsheets, she demands that each conversation inevitably end at the same place: Does it make money?
“Alana is the enforcer . . . great at cutting to the chase,” Nicole said. “We’re a great balance that way. She can come into a meeting, and she can get from point A to Z in a snap.”
If Alana’s the enforcer, then Juliette is the organizer. The youngest of the three is also the most bookish and obsessively detail-oriented. She scripted her own wedding minute-by-minute earlier this year, a feat that quickly entered Feld family lore.
She brings the same focus to her role as producer of Nuclear Cowboyz, even selecting the heavy-metal music for programs that combine pyrotechnic extravaganzas with dangerous freestyle motocross feats.
The only one with an MBA, Juliette joined the company as director of strategy, and spent her first two years burrowing into each division to find growth opportunities as well as ways to save money.
When each came on board, Kenneth Feld made sure they did not work directly with one another. He wanted the three to cumulatively gain exposure to every facet of Feld Entertainment.
“He’s doing as much as he can, within his control, to make it as seamless as it can be,” Alana said.
Moving into the future
The three Feld daughters are sitting in the basement of Verizon Center, waiting to head upstairs to watch that night’s Ringling Circus, which arrives in Washington every March like clockwork.
They live, breathe and eat the circus.
“This is what we wanted to commit our life to,” Juliette said. “This isn’t a job. This isn’t a place you go to every day. This is a part of who we are. This is where we were raised.”
Christmas breaks were spent at the circus’s winter headquarters in Florida, where performers took turns babysitting. Legendary wild-animal trainer Gunther Gebel Williams, who was the face of Ringling through the 1970s and ’80s, was like an uncle.
When the circus was in Washington, the girls would go to the D.C. Armory, where Ringling performed, working three shows in a day, whether it was spinning cotton candy or cleaning up elephant poop.
The problems now are just as weighty, but of a different sort.
“The three of us are trying to figure out where we see our paths in the company,” Nicole said. “Just because our father ran it a certain way for so many years, doesn’t mean it’s the right way for the future or the best way.”
Kenneth Feld has told his daughters to keep an open mind to outside ideas, even ones from other industries. So, he said, “always take a meeting, because you never know what could come of it.”
Feld learned the hard way to be ready for anything.
“When my father died,” he said. “I owned half the company, and he owned half the company. And he left me his share of the company. But the estate taxes on it basically outweighed the entire rest of his estate. So it took me 15 years to pay off the government all the taxes that I owed. It was a huge burden. I had to buy back what was left to me.”
While his daughters imagine all the possibilities for the company and family legacy, he’s zeroed in on the nuts and bolts of succession. He has gradually moved ownership of the business into their hands.
“I’m 63,” Feld said. “I have to be thinking about an exit strategy. You don’t want to do it on your deathbed.”
Although he is still the majority owner of Feld Entertainment, Kenneth began transferring shares of stock to them in 2001. He emphasizes that the amounts have been distributed equally. There are also family meetings organized by attorneys with a strict agenda on estate planning.
“I want to minimize their burden,” Kenneth said. “There are insurance and provisions so they are not going to get hit in the same way that I did.”
He doesn’t want to create any undue emotional strain, either. Feld has been dogged by lawsuits from his estranged sister, Karen, who charges, in part, that she was cut off from a big share of the family wealth. Feld said he cannot guarantee that his daughters will get along or that the company will remain in the family.
“They have to work it out,” he said. “It took me 10 years after my father died to figure out what I wanted to do and how I wanted this company to be. I would think about, ‘How would my father do it?’ It’s terrible. You can’t do that. I wasn’t my father, and they’re not me. They have to figure out what is the right way for the future of this company.”
Alana said it is inevitable that the daughters, all of whom have husbands who are outside the family business, will “have some hard conversations down the road. More so than we are now, about who exactly is doing what. But we do have each other, and I think there’s some relief in that.”
They don’t dwell on what things will look like after Kenneth is gone.
“It’s not productive,” Nicole said. “You worry about chipping away at what is within your control, like what’s going to happen in the European Union with all these shows we have in Europe. What’s going to happen in the fourth quarter of this year? How are we going to be able to cut through the clutter and all the fervor around the political election to get our message across with our shows?”
They’re thinking about how to keep it going — and growing globally — for the next generation. Nicole’s 6-month-old daughter, Piper, attends rehearsals, ice shows, supercross and has been to “the circus more times than most people have been in their whole life.”
The challenge, the sisters and their father agree, is to maintain a healthy business even as they try to anticipate what will keep audiences coming back the world over for years to come.
“What is it families are going to want out of their live entertainment in 15 years?” Alana said.
Upstairs at Verizon Center, the elephants are getting antsy and the performers are ready to take the center ring. The three sisters head toward the door and back to work. The show must go on, after all.
“So maybe we got the job because we all have the same last name,” Nicole said. “We earned our spot here, and we work hard every day to keep it.”