Rare two-family ownership arrangement keeps Kennywood Park thriving for last century

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On a Sunday morning in August 1997, Harry Henninger Jr. and Andrew Quinn arrived at their offices in Kennywood Park to make a flurry of phone calls to the park's board members and stockholders: A major amusement park company had made a lucrative bid for the West Mifflin institution the two men's families had owned and operated for 90 years.

"We had a huge offer; we couldn't speak for a few minutes when we saw the numbers," recalled Mr. Henninger, current chairman of Kennywood Entertainment.

The overture came from Premiere Parks, an Oklahoma-based chain that had outbid Kennywood when both were vying for Geauga Lake park in Aurora, Ohio.

But while Premiere's offer was tempting, the family members who owned shares and sat on the board of Kennywood unanimously concluded not to sell the business that F.W. Henninger and A.S. McSwigan had taken over from the Pittsburgh Railway Co. in 1906.

"We agreed we didn't found it, we don't deserve to profit by selling it. Let's pass it on," said Mr. Henninger, 60, grandson of F.W. Henninger.

"Family pride became bigger than the dollar sign," said Andrew Quinn, 52, great-grandson of A.S. McSwigan and director of community and government relations for Kennywood. "The mind-set of both families was 'leave the place better off than we found it.' "

Almost a decade later, Mr. Henninger and Mr. Quinn don't appear to be nursing any regrets.

The company that once courted Kennywood eventually scooped up the Six Flags parks chain and took its name. Now, weighed down by $2 billion in long-term debt, Six Flags is trying to unload assets.

But from their headquarters along the Monongahela River, the owners of Kennywood are eyeing a $60 million expansion that could include an indoor water park, a hotel and new amusement rides. They already own four other parks -- Idlewild & SoakZone in Ligonier, Sandcastle Waterpark and Riverplex picnic park in West Homestead, and Lake Compounce in Bristol, Conn. -- and in recent years have expanded their food service to include several catering businesses and a restaurant.

Business observers say Kennywood Entertainment has thrived while other parks have shut down or consolidated because it is a closely held, family business that has grown at a controlled pace without assuming debt.

Gene J. Puskar, Associated Press
Riders on the Thunderbolt coaster are silhouetted against the sunset.
Click photo for larger image.Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette
The "Old Mill" ride at Kennywood Park.
Click photo for larger image.Gene J. Puskar, Associated Press
Carpenter John Sullivan prepare the 1926 Racer coaster at Kennywood Park for winter in 1999.
Click photo for larger image.   
Online Graphic:

Kennywood Family Tree

   

But they also point to an unusual dynamic at work in the enterprise: Two families with 50-50 ownership have successfully handed down the business to subsequent generations for a century.

"I think it's unique, period," said Ann Dugan, executive director of the Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence at the University of Pittsburgh's Katz Graduate School of Business.

"Usually by the end of the first generation or beginning of the second generation, one family has bought another one out."

Unlike most family businesses, Kennywood was a successful concern before Mr. Henninger and Mr. McSwigan got involved.

A railway company controlled by financier Andrew Mellon started the park in 1898 to generate more use of its rail and trolley lines. Mr. Henninger, who sold lumber to the park to build its roller coasters, and Mr. McSwigan, a newspaper editor who handled publicity for the railway, teamed up in 1906 to take over the lease for the park situated on land owned by the Kenny family. The McSwigans and Henningers didn't own the property until 1971 when they bought it for $1.3 million.

After Mr. McSwigan died in 1923, his son, Andrew Brady McSwigan, took over as president until 1963. He had four daughters whose families were not involved in park management but held seats on the board of directors.

"We were absentee owners," said Mr. Quinn, whose grandmother was one of Andrew Brady McSwigan's daughters.

Mr. Quinn was raised in Philadelphia where his father, Tom, had been transferred by Gulf Oil Corp. But during summer vacations from Wheeling College, he worked at Kennywood and lived in a home the family maintained in Oakland.

After graduation in 1975, his father encouraged him to take a full-time job at the park "because he wanted someone from the family working there."

"My dad said, 'Give me five years at the park. If you don't like it, I'll help you get another job.' "

Mr. Quinn has been there ever since. His oldest son, Ryan, works in park maintenance and is now the fifth generation of McSwigans involved at Kennywood.

The Henninger name has remained a constant in the business because F.W. Henninger had three sons, Carl, Harry and Robert, who worked there in executive positions.

"We are an old German family that had a chauvinistic attitude: the sons worked at the park, the daughters didn't," said Mr. Henninger, who is Harry's son. He started working summers at Kennywood at age 15 and came on board full time in 1968.

Carl Henninger did not have children, but Robert's sons, Bill and Robert Jr., also hold top roles: Bill Henninger runs Kennywood Entertainment's food and beverage business, and Robert Jr. manages group sales.

The fourth generation is already in place: Robert Jr.'s son, Rob, is facilities manager, and Bill's son, Michael, is food service director for Kennywood Park. Harry Jr.'s nephew, Scott MacKay, is general manager of Sandcastle.

As the business grew from one park to multiple operations in recent years, the company has tapped nonfamily members for top management jobs, including former chairman Carl Hughes and the current president, Peter McAneny, who oversees day-to-day business.

"I think [the family partnership] has worked because it's equal parts respect and trust," said Mr. Hughes, who retired as chairman in 1999 but remains on the board. "There may have been disagreements, quietly, but they never came down to a veto or negative vote."

Kennywood file photos
Click photo for larger image.Tut's Tomb circa 1928
Click photo for larger image.The lagoon in the center of Kennywood Amusement Park in West Mifflin, Pa., is shown in this photo from the late 1920's.
Click photo for larger image.   
Kennywood Entertainment

Holdings & Year Acquired or Opened

   

While previous generations of Kennywood owners have shunned the limelight, Mr. Quinn said the company had emerged with a higher profile as it lobbies hard for tax breaks and completion of the Mon-Fayette Expressway, which would bring potential customers right to its door.

The company released a study last fall showing its annual economic impact on the state to be $136 million compared with $125 million from the Pittsburgh Pirates and $85 million from the Pittsburgh Steelers.

By 2015, the company expects to support 2,800 full-time equivalent jobs, up from about 2,200 currently, and generate an economic impact on the state of $173 million.

"It's a departure for us, but we've kind of changed our thinking," said Mr. Quinn. "We're tired of hearing how the Pirates and Steelers are providing jobs. We're bigger, and we always knew it."

The dual-family partnership has worked, he said, because: "Usually there is one lead guy in the decision-making process, but his decision is not made in a vacuum. There's never been a split decision that I know of on big things that drive the destiny of the company. If we're going to spend $10 million and someone has a question, we do the work behind the scenes to get the answer; and by the time of the decision, everyone is in accordance."

Mr. Henninger said the families respected each other and were comfortable when a member of the other family was in the top job.

"There's always been a strong, dominant management style. As long as there's a successful business plan, it's never been spoken but always acknowledged that if you want to be on the management team, sign up. Otherwise, sit back and shut up."

Both families also acknowledge that Kennywood and its affiliated businesses require an atypical work ethic because they are demanding, seasonal ventures.

"In this business, we have 135 days to make all the money we can. It is not a job; it is a lifestyle," said Mr. Quinn, who used to take his sons out of school every September when the park closed for the season in order to ensure they would have a family vacation.

Bad news at Kennywood takes its toll on the owners because so many Western Pennsylvanians consider themselves part of the Kennywood family.

Mr. Quinn was not in the park when the pavilion housing the Whip ride collapsed in a storm on May 31, 2002, killing one person and injuring at least 54.

But when he heard about the incident, he headed to the park with two of his sons who had worked shifts there earlier in the day. "We all grabbed hard hats and chain saws and came out."

Price increases and the news of 12 layoffs last November generated widespread reaction.

"People say, 'How dare you do this? This is my park,' " said Mr. Quinn.

Kennywood's two families have made their partnership work, Pitt's Ms. Dugan said, by putting in place a strong organizational chart, a strategic plan for succession and some outside chief executives who help "keep conflicts to a minimum." She doesn't believe there has ever been a power struggle between the two families because, "There's not a lot of grandstanding. You see a lot of humility.

"Sometimes [in family businesses] you'll see one family waiting for someone in the other to make a misstep. But they look for ways to bolster each other up."


Martha Rial, Post-Gazette

The third, fourth and fifth generation of Kennywood's family owners include (in front row) Scott MacKay, left, Harry Henninger, Mike Henninger and Andy Quinn. In the second row are Bob Henninger, left, Rob Henninger and Ryan Quinn.


Joyce Gannon can be reached at jgannon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1580.


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