Great Wolf Resorts: Promoting Within

Kim Schaefer, 42, the new CEO of Great Wolf Resorts, Inc. thrives on fun and entertainment. But, she insists, despite an orientation of delivering memorable family experiences, she's all about meeting bottom-line company expectations.

Great Wolf Resorts currently owns and operates 11 water park resorts around the country, with a 12th scheduled to open this month in Concord, N.C. Now a public company with 5,000 employees and 2007 revenues of $1.88 million, it is vastly different from the six-person office she joined in 1996.

Originally from Illinois, Schaefer's family moved to Madison when she was 11 years old. After earning an accounting degree from Edgewood College in 1990, Schaefer worked for Suby, Von Haden & Associates and Madison's Crowne Plaza Hotel. She then joined the Great Lakes Companies, Inc. as the controller.

At the time, the company's six owners operated 13 hotel properties in eight states, allowing her to wear several hats. "I did everything," she laughed. "I was the controller, the project manager, the bookkeeper, and I handled operations."

She remembers clearly the day in 1999 when the group decided to purchase Black Wolf Lodge in the Wisconsin Dells. "I was the first to raise my hand and say, 'I really want to take this on,'" she said. With some retail and rental properties also in its portfolio, Black Wolf Lodge was its first venture into the indoor water park concept, and Schaefer saw endless possibilities to expand beyond the state's borders.

The success of Black Wolf Lodge (renamed later to Great Wolf Lodge) led the company to open a second location in Sandusky, Ohio, which was closely followed by properties in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Kansas.

2004 was a whirlwind year. The company and all of its entities were sold to the newly-named Great Wolf Resorts Inc., and Schaefer was named Chief Brand Officer. Most importantly, in August, Great Wolf Resorts registered with the SEC for an IPO, and in December of that year, the company netted about $248.1 million on the sale of 16.1 million shares of common stock.

The transition from a private to publicly-owned company was felt immediately. What was once a very entrepreneurial company became more structured, she said, "and a little less fun," with many required checks and balances.

At the same time, she remembers the excitement involved in formulating a mission statement and developing service standards and training regimens for the influx of new employees.

" As you get larger, communication becomes the fundamental difference," she said. "With six owners, it was easy to communicate and make decisions. Now, we have 5,000 employees, and we rely on them to live up to our expectations." These days, customized training programs help communicate those expectations and goals.

By 2005, Schaefer was named COO, then President/COO in June of 2008, a precursor to the CEO title she assumed this past January.

Schaefer's immediate challenge is opening the North Carolina resort this month. Beyond that, with today's economy she admits she really can't see into the future.

"Our focus will be on the open resorts," she said, rather than developing new resorts. For the time being.