Undercover Boss: Great Wolf Resorts' Kimberly Schaefer is Show's First Female CEO
Great Wolf Resorts' CEO is boldly going where no 'Undercover Boss' has ever gone before: into the ladies room. That's right -- this week marks the first time we've seen a female infiltrate a company incognito. "I hope I do a good job representing my gender," says CEO Kimberly Schaefer. But it seems she was doing that long before she was on the show.
"I've always been a very driven, focused, hard worker," she says, which is probably why, after 14 years, she is the only one left of the original six partner group that got the ball rolling on the resorts. She was also the only female. Now Great Wolf is North America's largest family of indoor water park resorts, a $330 million business with 12 facilities nationwide and more being built. It's slippery work managing a company like that, and managing a family at the same time.
But Schaefer is living proof that you can have it all. She has two well-adjusted kids, a daughter age 15 and a son age 12, and a very supportive husband who is the key to balancing her multi-faceted life. "He stays at home," she explains. "We're like yin and yang. He is laid back and relaxed, and enjoys running marathons and puttering around the house. Dave doesn't have an ego. He's all about what's best for the family."
Great Wolf Resorts attempts to be all about what's best for the family too, and Schaefer's undercover experience opened her eyes to the myriad different needs of the families involved, whether they belong to employees or to guests. Her cover story for being followed by a camera crew was also family oriented -- it was explained that she was part of a reality series about moms going back to work.
And many of the employees she worked with were working mothers. Jackie, who showed her how to manage the very complicated check-in process, had long, irregular hours on her feet, which exacerbated a knee problem that she hadn't had the time or money to take care of. She was also unable to to attend her kids' extracurricular activities, because her shifts were so irregular.
Once Schaefer's identity was revealed, she wasted no time giving Jackie a raise and switching her to a consistent 7:00 am to 3:00 pm shift so she could be there more often for her kids, and paying for her knee surgery and recovery time.
These were probably among the most emotional, and most heartfelt resolutions of any undercover boss yet. That could be one of the advantages of her gender. Schaefer was very aware of how nurturing her staff is, and attempted to return that.
"I was surprised by the way the staff accommodates the individual needs of each guest, and they have so many." She notes how, when she was working as a waitress, one guest came in who had just had a car accident. Schaefer was so impressed with the way Deanna (the server who was training her) handled that guest's special needs.
Schaefer was also impressed with the way Deanna handled her needs -- which included serving just one table, while Deanna juggled six. Schaefer was particularly touched by the fact that Deanna had lost a daughter in an accident and is recovering and building a new life. "I thought of my own daughter, and how difficult it would be to lose her," Schaefer says through tears.
She was moved to not only give Deanna a raise and a promotion, but to pay for her to take six months off to spend time with her new baby and family. "You need to see him grow up," she told Deanna.
But that wasn't Schaefer's most challenging assignment. Working as an aquatic supervisor at their massive Grapevine, Texas, facility got that honor. Shorts she felt were too short and too tight were the least of her worries -- she found being aware of everyone's safety at all times a bit overwhelming, and was impressed with how Kelly, her trainer, managed it. She also struggled with wearing a heavy shirt in an environment they keep heated to 84 degrees, so the guests, in their swimsuits, will be warm. "Running around so much with all those clothes on is not easy," she says.
Then there was the poop. Schaefer was called to respond to an "AFR" (Accidental Fecal Release). It involved getting in the pool and fishing out the offending object, then cleaning up the "smear" at the bottom of the pool. At first she thought, "Why did I volunteer to do this?" But then she calmed down, and realized, "S--t happens." It was nothing she hadn't seen before.
She realized that Kelly and his colleagues had to deal with that every day, along with keeping all the guests in the park safe at all times, yet they were amazingly competent and had very positive attitudes, especially Kelly. He confided in her that his real dream was to become a pilot, so not only did she give him a raise and a promotion, but is paying for him to attend flight school.
Having raised two kids of her own, Schaefer thought she would have been more relaxed and capable helping kids make pizza at the "Cub Club," the Texas facility's daycare activity center. But there's no fooling kids, who were merciless about her being a newbie. She was grateful for the good nature and energy of Bree, who had only been with the company a few months. Shortly after she got her job at Cub Club, Bree's husband lost his job, and with her daughter going to college, she was more grateful than ever for her work. Schaefer ended up creating a whole new position for Bree, and arranging a scholarship for her daughter.
While the male CEOs seem to sort of enjoy dressing down and relaxing their grooming standards, it was more difficult for Schaefer. "I admit, the vanity kicked in," she says. They cut and dyed her hair and put large glasses on her. "I didn't even recognize myself when I looked in the mirror," she says. But after awhile, she was so busy she forgot about it. One of the minor fringe benefits of the experience is that her husband loves her new bob.
Some Undercover Bosses are so shy and nervous about their experience they prefer to stay home and watch the final product when it airs for the first time, surrounded by their immediate families. But not Schaefer. They're throwing a a massive watching party at the resort closest to where she lives in Madison Wis., and more premiere parties at each of the resorts across the country. "It's going to be a big bash everywhere, and all the employees are invited to bring their families," she says.
That seems to be perfectly fitting for Great Wolf Resorts.
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Lisa Johnson Mandell is an award-winning multi-media journalist and author of Career Comeback--Repackage Yourself to Get the Job You Want. Her work has been translated into 20 different languages, and she is a frequent expert guest and commentator on news and talk shows. She has been featured in The Wall St. Journal, on the CBS Early Show, NBC Today, CNBC, Fox Business News, Dr. Phil, Oprah.com and many other media outlets. Lisa discusses her AOL pieces each week and interviews vital guests on the web TV show, This Week in Careers. Learn more on LisaJohnsonMandell.com.