By the time Mark Shapiro and Daniel Snyder rolled into the 21 Club in Manhattan a couple of weeks ago to meet with about 30 investors, they had made the same presentation dozens of times.
Over the past four weeks, Shapiro, a former ESPN programming executive, and Redskins owner Snyder have gone wherever they were welcome -- Los Angeles, Chicago, Nebraska -- to tell investors how they plan to turn around Six Flags Inc., the nation's second-largest chain of theme parks. So while their "21 Burgers" got cold, they booted up PowerPoint one more time, ran through their litany of the company's failings and offered their prescription:
Six Flags needs Dan Snyder.
Six Flags needs Mark Shapiro.
Their sales pitch had plenty of the standard corporate turnaround fare about lost shareholder value and the need to upgrade and modernize.
But ultimately it was about Snyder and Shapiro themselves, complementary talents wrapped in similar personalities -- Snyder the marketing impresario, Shapiro the hands-on producer, both hard-edged salesmen used to being the boss. To win control of the company, they must convince Six Flags shareholders that experience running an NFL franchise and success developing sports television shows can carry over to theme parks.
It is not a conventional strategy. Instead of simply trying to buy the company, Snyder -- Six Flags' largest investor -- has offered himself as chairman of the board, offered Shapiro as chief executive and tried to convince stockholders that they would do well to fire current management. Local home builder Dwight C. Schar, a part owner of the Redskins, is also part of Snyder's proposal as a potential member of the Six Flags board of directors.
"Typically you don't get to put in a new management team unless you buy the company," said Rajesh K. Aggarwal, a merger expert and finance professor at the University of Minnesota. "I am not really sure what he is trying to accomplish."
Snyder has offered to pay $6.50 a share to increase his stake, but only if Six Flags shareholders agree to turn the company over to his team. But since he launched his proxy fight, the stock has been trading at $7 or more. In SEC filings, Snyder maintained that he wouldn't budge from his $6.50-per-share offer, which he thinks is a fair price considering that Six Flags has more than $2 billion in debt, as well as provisions that would make a takeover more difficult and more expensive.
Snyder has hinted at ambitions beyond the amusement park business, perhaps building an entertainment conglomerate.
Whatever the motivation, he is convinced he has found gold in Shapiro, enough to pay him what Shapiro confirmed was several million dollars to leave a top position at ESPN for a job he may never get to fill.
Shapiro is "one of the brightest, most energetic, creative businesspeople I've ever met," Snyder said during an August appearance on CNBC. Given the chance, Shapiro "would be the perfect chief executive officer for a family entertainment company."
Shapiro and Snyder met a few years ago at an NFL broadcast television meeting.
Before going into business together, the two men vacationed together, introduced their wives and took time to make sure the fit was right. The discussions started small and gained momentum as the two talked business at restaurants in Greenwich, Conn., near Shapiro's home, and at the sports network's ESPY awards, where Snyder was Shapiro's guest.
People who know both men have a theory about why they get along.
"Two peas in a pod," said Steve Bornstein, Shapiro's former boss at ESPN.
Snyder is 40 years old; Shapiro is 35. Snyder built a $2 billion advertising business by the time he was 34. Shapiro started out as a production assistant when he was 23 and became a top programming executive eight years later.
Like Snyder, Shapiro is a workaholic who, when he is not on the road, is in the office by 7 a.m. and not out until 9 p.m. He lives close to ESPN headquarters in Connecticut with his wife, Kim, and their two sons. But "no one asks about his family because they assume he doesn't have one," said Dick Glover, a former executive of ESPN owner Walt Disney Co. who is now vice president for broadcasting and new media for NASCAR.
Both men are known as tough bosses, with little patience for those who can't keep up. Shapiro's manner nearly got him fired during his first weeks at ESPN, when he demanded that colleagues fetch his lunch.
Both men as also known as candid to a fault. Shapiro once referred to the National Hockey League as "a damaged brand," a statement he defends as truthful after the league's year-long strike. Others view such comments as impolitic.
"It's a major league. . . . You've got to handle some leagues with respect," said veteran sports agent Barry Frank, a self-described fan of Shapiro. "He's a hip shooter, and when you shoot from the hip you're going to make some mistakes."
Shapiro got into similar trouble with the NFL when he approved "Playmakers," an original series that offered a gritty, behind-the-scenes look at pro football. The image-conscious NFL hated it so much that it pressured ESPN to yank the show.
Despite the criticism, "we took risks, we put ourselves out there," said Shapiro, who as producer of a high school sports show in Illinois pulled student athletes out of class without permission to tape interviews.
"Mark is all about what he thinks is the right thing and what he wants. In that way he is really pure and genuine. Sometimes it drives some people nuts," said Lee Ann Daly, former ESPN vice president of marketing.
Those who know Snyder and Shapiro wonder whether it's just a matter of time before they bang heads. But Shapiro said Snyder would be a "non-executive chairman" who gives him room to operate.
The Six Flags board is not sitting idle. It has put the company up for sale as a defensive move and is lobbying shareholders to reject Snyder's proposal.
Snyder "doesn't get it," the board said in material sent to shareholders. His ideas are "foolish" and "uninformed." "Ownership of [a] professional sports franchise [is] not comparable to managing theme parks," the board said. Ditto for "managing programming at a cable sports network." It said all Snyder and Shapiro have to offer is a "Trust Me Plan."
To Snyder and Shapiro, that should be all that's necessary.
They note Six Flags' debt and say the company's revenue, stock and public reputation have all plummeted. Six Flags operates 30 parks in North America, including one in Prince George's County. In submissions to stockholders, Snyder and Shapiro included news clips with such headlines as "Magic Mountain -- Security To Be Tightened After Two Weekends Of Violence."
"It's about what's not being done. It's about low-hanging fruit," Shapiro said on a visit to Washington this month. "Right now [Six Flags] is known more for long lines and broken rides than anything else."
Simple things could be improved, he said -- such as dumping Bugs Bunny and other cartoon characters he considers not "culturally relevant" for the company's merchandise and rides -- and "doing more for children under 48 inches tall" to attract more families.
"Kids today don't know Daffy Duck," he said. " 'Bob the Builder' is on at my house. 'Dora the Explorer' is on at my house."
More important, the two men say, they will do for Six Flags what they did for ESPN and the Redskins.
As programming chief, Shapiro said, he "stretched the brand to make ESPN synonymous with anything sports" by pioneering original entertainment, bringing the NBA and "Monday Night Football" to the network and developing such shows as "Around the Horn" and "Pardon the Interruption," which features two Washington Post sports columnists.
Shapiro said he could stretch Six Flags "into a family brand," allowing him and Snyder to "start playing in different fields."
He rattled off corporate role models: Nickelodeon, which has expanded into movies, video games and merchandise, and Starbucks, which in addition to coffee now sells music.
"The idea is once you get people in your space, you got to find other ways to empty their pockets beyond mocha frappuccinos," Shapiro said.
No one knows better how to squeeze money out of people in a confined space than Snyder, who has built the Redskins into the one of most valuable U.S. sports franchises. In their pitch to shareholders, Snyder and Shapiro include "the Washington Redskins Case Study," which lays out the strategies Snyder used to double concession revenue at FedEx Field to nearly $15 million: outsourcing operations and using technology to make it easier for fans to buy food and beverages.
"There are so many parallels here," Shapiro said. Amusement parks are a "marketing and content business. . . . It's the emotional transportation business," just like movies or a baseball game or a novel, he said. "Same thing."
They are selling to a tough audience. Among Six Flags' major shareholders are Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates, Nebraska fund manager Wallace R. Weitz, and New York investor and diamond merchant Simon Glick.
None has made public statements about his intentions, and Six Flags has limited its comments to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission and an occasional news release. Shareholder voting is expected to be finished by about the end of the year.
At least one investor is not impressed.
"Most of the things [Snyder] says are intelligent, and no doubt investors are unhappy with current management and what they have done," said Jeffrey Bronchick, chief investment officer with Reed, Conner & Birdwell, a investment firm that owns Six Flags shares. But, asked Bronchick, who would probably benefit more financially from a takeover than Snyder's current plan, "if he wants to take over the company, why doesn't he just buy it?"
Shapiro expressed confidence in the plan. "Dan wouldn't be jumping into something that didn't have a big, sunny day at the end," he said.