By Andrew Hazelton
Some atypical brands are both iconic and notable for their nostalgia factor. CEO Bill Simpson is the current steward of a business grounded in one of these rare brands – Hershey. Everyone knows and loves the chocolate, but Bill has worked for approximately 20 years to make Hershey Entertainment & Resorts (HE&R) a premier guest service company wrapped in a timeless destination that provides memories that are just as sweet.
Bill was appointed CEO in January 2013 after holding a string of progressively senior leadership roles at the company. He joined the company in 1996 as general manager of Hershey Lodge. That original passion for “operations” never left, and today he likewise focuses on building enterprise value for his stakeholders by aligning and maximizing the link between business practices and people practices in the organization.
This is no easy task when you consider Bill is in the middle of an immense balancing act between maintaining traditions instilled in the HE&R brand and pushing for innovations that make visiting Hershey, PA, a 21st-century hospitality experience. He recently talked with me about his philosophy and approach to business challenges. His insights are an opportunity for everyone to appreciate the thinking and acumen of a true servant leader – so enjoy this uncensored conversation with Bill Simpson.
Your organization is an unusual crossroad of businesses in hotel, restaurant, travel-tourism and retail – virtually all sectors of the hospitality industry combined. What are the biggest strategic challenges this introduces? In our mind, whether it’s serving a guest at Hersheypark or The Spa At The Hotel Hershey, the guest is there for one reason and one reason only, “The Hershey Experience.” Thus, we maintain our focus on providing that experience to our guest and, in turn, leveraging all the data we collect when it comes to guest satisfaction scores and feedback. Our biggest strategic challenge is how we can best leverage technology and take advantage of the tools and systems that we create, like the “Hersheypark App,” to better serve our guests and enhance their overall experience. People come to us with a set of expectations and our goal is to fulfil those expectations. In this high touch day and age, it’s all about making it easier for our guests to enjoy the “Hershey Experience.”
In your view, regardless of the hospitality vertical, what is this “Hershey Experience” people are looking for? As it pertains to the destination of Hershey, Pennsylvania, it is all about family. I realize that most of the focus these days is on the millennial generation, but for us it’s family. But, as millennials grow and have families of their own, we want them to come back to Hershey, because our goal is to provide outstanding, timeless, family experiences that stretch across generations. To us, that is our common purpose and market differentiator.
How do you address the apparent struggle between maintaining tradition and leveraging new technology in the business? Let’s use Hersheypark as an example. If you look at ride inventory, there are rides that come to an end of life and need to be removed; inevitably, that ride was a guest’s favourite that they may have enjoyed every year. So, you will receive feedback with every decision that you make…believe me. The best thing you can do is listen to your guests and provide an exceptional experience for as many people as you can. We are fortunate to be associated with such a highly recognizable brand. Our efforts, in conjunction with those of The Hershey Company, help deliver on the “experience” portion of that brand. Leveraging technology is important for us to amplify the overall experience for our guests. Our overarching priority is to exceed our guests’ expectations. One of the tangible results of our success in that area is “length of stay” in our park. On average, our Hersheypark guests are with us for seven hours, which, in many cases, is longer than the length of stay for our competition. We are also an overnight destination, not just a day destination. That distinction means we have to provide an exceptional experience for a longer period of time at every guest touch point. Ultimately, technology helps enhance the experience, which allows us to meet our guest service goals.
How does a leader balance the need to maintain one’s authenticity on one hand and be “on stage” and under constant public scrutiny on the other? For me, it has always been about being as approachable as possible, as well as transparent and authentic to the public and my team. For example, at the start of every year, I spend time with our staff and present our strategic plan for the upcoming year, and I let them know exactly what our plan is and what is in store for HE&R, even if it’s something that I don’t necessarily want to be leaked to the public, yet.
My thinking is simple; I owe it to my team to be transparent because that is in our DNA. Mr. Hershey was always transparent with this community as to what he was doing; thus, we continue that here today. That said, messaging matters and leaders should always strive to maximize their people and persuasion skills.
How do you maintain a connection with your team, especially since you are constantly working in a very high-level, strategic role? The common denominator at HE&R is our core purpose, which is supporting Milton Hershey School. In addition, we follow a set of Core Values. Every employee knows this core purpose and our values:
- Devoted to the legacy: Acting in a manner that reflects the dedication and integrity of our founder
- Selfless spirt of service: Serving our employees and their families, our guests, our community and our environment
- Team focused: Supporting one another as we work towards common goals and earning each other’s trust
- Respectful of others: Treating all people with dignity, while respecting their differences and ideas
Having all employees aligned on these values is how we stay connected at HE&R.
What are the main factors, in your experience, that hold people back in their careers? Lack of self-awareness and low emotional intelligence. History has shown that you need to be able to navigate relationships to be successful, especially if you want to move up into greater roles and levels of responsibility with more emphasis on leadership. At the end of the day, you need to play well with others, have the ability to be influential, gain trust and have humility as well.
At HE&R, it is all about leadership development. Early in my career I successfully moved up the ranks, because I had the operational skills, but when I found myself in a more senior leadership positon I found that I lacked the skill set to be a leader instead of a manager. No one taught me how to do so. I am also an introvert and, at the time, I didn’t have enough self-awareness to know I had to find a way to manage that trait. A lot of my future success in this industry relied on my ability to connect better in a group or team setting. Just like athletes, leaders can practice and get better. In my opinion, you can improve on everything… you may never be the best, but you can always improve. For all of these reasons, I am a big believer in executive or leadership coaching and continued professional learning and development.
Many companies only consider succession planning in a contingency situation, as opposed to thinking proactively and strategically about bench-strength continuity. What is your approach to succession planning? In my mind, your first job as a leader is to build more leaders and ensure you give people the opportunity to be in a better place than when you started. You want to have a strong pipeline of talent, and as a leader you need to improve the careers of others. We take training, development and succession planning very seriously. In my view, if we do a great job with training and development and if someone moves on from HE&R because of our efforts, then good for them and good for us, because we know we did what we were supposed to do — which is build and mentor future leaders. One of the other points of difference at HE&R is that succession planning and leadership development come from my office, not from a Board of Directors as is typical in other companies. My team and I are in a better place to drive succession planning initiatives since we are on the ground, working with each other 24/7.
Because development, succession planning and training are core to your culture, does this lead to negative internal competition whereby individuals are selfishly posturing for positions? It actually is not a big issue at HE&R because we are fortunate to have a culture where everyone wants to see each other succeed. We really take our time with people and dig into “what’s next” and where they want their careers to go. I personally take the time to meet with a significant number of our team members, many of whom don’t even report to me. The goal is to provide counsel and guidance to help them be successful now and for the long-term.
What is your advice to those aspiring and working toward leadership? I would tell any future leader that it is very difficult to navigate this business on your own; thus, you need to ask for help and view it as a sign of strength, not weakness. This coincides with the need for mentorship. Any successful leader should have a team of mentors or “personal board of directors” to help them along the way. In my opinion, this needs to be a group of individuals who can provide you with unbiased advice and guidance. I would go so far to also say that surrounding yourself with people outside of your industry would also be beneficial.
Speaking casually with Bill, I was easily impressed with his humility on one hand and executive presence on the other. Both qualities seem to work well together to give him personal perspective and the business acumen to persuade, align and motivate his teams. Bill embodies servant leadership, because, as you saw above, he is always invested in the success of others and how to push innovation and technology specifically to reinforce HE&R’s brand experience, as opposed to trying to wow consumers with the latest and greatest gadgets, bells and whistles.
In so many ways Bill is an effective case study of the power of what AETHOS calls the “Performance Matrix” – the proper definition and alignment among an organization’s purpose and values, strategies and goals, structure and tactics, and metrics and outcomes. It’s a never-ending challenge for companies to align and achieve these four points of performance… but when an organization does accomplish this well, due to the servant leadership of someone like Bill Simpson, you can get results like HE&R. Like the iconic Hershey brand, Bill Simpson has a firm understanding of the necessary components of success.