Forum shares experiences with students

Business leaders shared with Lycoming College students some of the secrets of their success as well as the obstacles they face running their companies during a recent forum at the school.

The three, all Lycoming graduates, gave their alma mater some credit for helping them learn skills needed to succeed.

The forum was moderated by Bill Kelly, president and CEO of WVIA Public Media.

Ron Knoebel, owner of Knoebel’s Amusement Resort, recalled the small college atmosphere and the feeling of belonging the school gave him.

A former standout college wrestler, Knoebel said sports helped him learn valuable lessons.

A 1965 graduate, Knoebel said he majored in sociology, which has given him a different perspective in operating the amusement park alongside his brother, (Dick), who majored in engineering at Lehigh University.

“We both have our strengths. I’m the people person,” he said.

Jay Cleveland, class of 1988, said the main reason he came to Lycoming was to play basketball.

That athletic experience helped the president of Cleveland Brothers Equipment learn commitment, which is important in business.

Michael Warehime, chairman of Snyder’s-Lance Co. said he learned a lot from a mentor at Lycoming.

He said his business courses, such as accounting, were a big help too.

Each of the businessmen were asked what makes entrepreneurs so restless and eager to enter new ventures.

Knoebel said in his business he is selling people “an experience.”

“People come (to Knoebel’s). If they don’t have a good experience, they won’t come back,” he said. “You have to have something new.”

Rides, games, food, a swimming pool, golf, even camping are all part of the Knoebel’s experience.

Knoebel told the story of buying the Phoenix roller-coaster which became available after a San Antonio amusement park closed.

“We got a $3 million roller-coaster from $1 million,” he said.

It ended up doubling the park’s attendance.

Among the biggest obstacles he ever faced as a businessman, he said, was facing the task of reopening the park after the 1972 flood.

Flooding is not an uncommon occurrence at the park, but it never stops the amusement park from reopening.

He fondly recalled people stepping up to get the park back in working order following the flood of 2011.

And, the amusement park accepted no government bailout money from the flooding.

“We felt it (funding) belonged to other people,” he said.

Cleveland said a company either has to grow or end up being acquired by the competition.

“It’s always fun to make money and reward people who work for you,” he said.

Warehime said it all comes down to being competitive and having a passion for what one does.

“Why do people do sports?” he asked. “Climb mountains? Sell?”

The businessmen responded to how they balance the demands of running companies with family life.

Warehime, who got married at 34, said he made sure he ended up with a wife who would tolerate his work schedule.

“You have to enjoy your work enough. You have to be good friends with your soul mate,” he explained.

Cleveland said his wife is very understanding.

Knoebel said he simply grew up in a business that was part of his family.

“I started out working with the family at age 5,” he recalled.

It was his grandfather, he said, who started the amusement park in 1926 after digging up ground for a swimming pool near Elysburg.

Each of the businessman conceded it’s difficult as leaders of large companies to get to know all your employees.

“At 235 employees it was easier,” Cleveland said. “Now, with 1300 people there is no way I know everyone.’

Warehime said he tries to communicate with employees through certain team leaders.

“You can keep in touch that way,” he said.

Knoebel said he normally employs about 1800 seasonal workers in addition to his full-time employee base.

“I do not know everyone,” he said. “I do make an effort to reach out.”

And what role does luck play in running a business?

“The harder you work, the luckier you get,” Knoebel said.

His Christian faith, he said, is an important aspect of his life.

Cleveland said the state’s business climate has been good for his business at a time when many companies are struggling.

“The Marcellus Shale has really insulated us from horror stories you hear from around the country,” he said. “I agree the harder you work, the luckier you get.”