Interview with Roland Mack, Founder of Europa-Park and Owner of Mack Rides

Germany’s Europa-Park is one of the world’s most famous theme parks and the second most visited theme park in Europe after Disneyland Paris. The park attracts millions of visitors each year, few of whom know that its roots go back hundreds of years to a small family-owned carriage workshop in the Black Forest town of Waldkirch, a Southern German village still known for stagecoaches and organs. The workshop was founded in 1780 by Paul Mack who built carriages of all kinds and served as a supplier to mobile stages and circus performers. At the time, an increase in mobility created a strong demand for carriages. Showmanship was also a fast-growing business. Close ties to travelling showmen allowed the family to witness the industry develop. As a result, they adjusted their product portfolio to meet their customers’ needs and demands, making everything from carousels and auto scooters, to ghost trains and rollercoasters.

Today, Mack Rides continues to stand for innovation and dependability as one of the world’s leading manufacturers of various rides and rollercoasters. Roland Mack, seventh generation family business member and founder of Europa-Park, runs the family business with his brother Jürgen. Roland’s two sons, Michael and Thomas, have also joined the executive board in the last decade and taken over operational roles in the company.

Tharawat Magazine sat down with award-winning businessman Roland Mack and discussed his colourful childhood, the evolution of the industry and the importance of emotional intelligence in the pursuit of excellence.

The Mack family opened the Europa-Park in the 1970s and it fast became Europe’s leading theme park.
Image courtesy of Mack Rides. The Mack family opened the Europa-Park in the 1970s and it fast became Europe’s leading theme park.

Your family has been in the business of rides and carriages for a very long time. What prompted you to open Europa-Park?

My father and I had the idea to open a theme park for all ages during a trip to the USA in 1972. We developed the concept of a park with entertainment, culture and rides, almost all of which were built by our parent company Mack Rides. The idea was that this theme park would also showcase our manufactured products, so that potential clients could see how they ran in a practical setting.

The implementation of our project took just three years. Europa-Park opened its gates for the first time in 1975. At first, many did not believe Europa-Park would be successful. There was a lot of initial scepticism and many banks refused to give us loans. The number of visitors we welcomed proved us right. In 1975 alone we had 250,000 visitors. One year later that number rose to 700,000 visitors. By 1978, we reached the one million mark. In just a few years my father Franz and I, and later my brother Jürgen, turned a day-trip theme park into an international short-break destination.

In 1982, we took a decisive step and implemented a European theme. We opened the Italian area first in 1982, followed by the first hotel in a German leisure park, El Andaluz, in 1995. Today our portfolio includes five four-star superior hotels, making us the largest hotel resort in Germany with more than 4,500 beds.

New and upcoming highlights include the cooperation with the Europa-Park Golfclub, a 2-star Michelin restaurant and the opening of another theme hotel and indoor/outdoor waterpark on an expansion area in the southeast of Rust. This project has been in the works for a very long time and we are very proud that it will soon become a reality. We are continuing our chartered course towards the development of ideal destinations for short family holidays.

You have been hugely successful at growing the park and its activities. How do you know what will appeal to your clients?

I come from this industry. I grew up in this profession. My father and my grandfathers were in this industry though on the production side. My childhood was spent on the factory floors of our company. It was a childhood full of rollercoasters and fun rides. The clients we used to deal with were all from moving fun parks and circuses, so we understood the market through them. It is the vivid memories of these experiences that allowed me to start and grow Europa-Park.

Greece -themed part of Europ-Park
Image courtesy of Mack Rides. Greece -themed part of Europa-Park

So there was never really a question of whether or not you would join the family business?

The passion was always there. Of course I was originally supposed to follow in my father’s footsteps and run Mack Rides, the production company. I studied engineering and was ready to begin when we had our theme park idea. We wanted it to showcase our products and initially planned that a partner would take over while we continued in production. Unfortunately, our partner died six months before the opening, so the task of running it fell to me, twenty-four at the time and just out of university. I was in the park from day one and specialised in the service side of our industry.

What allowed you to thrive so quickly?

We began at the right moment. We quickly realised that we were onto something special as we live in a touristic place ideally nestled where France, Germany and Switzerland meet. The reactions were sensational and it was clear that we met a market gap.

Many of our competitors did not survive the new industry trend of stationary fun parks, which took full swing in the 80s causing many of our competitors to disappear. We had the park and were secure though we did have to adapt. In the 90s we stopped the production of carriages, something our family had been doing for centuries. Though we were market leaders, we decided to invest in developing stationary rides and new technologies. We were able to benefit from theme park developments around the world.

Today, only 10% of our revenues come from Germany. We build in the UAE, USA, China, Europe, Latin America and Australia. Thanks to our agility and strategy, we are now amongst the five largest production companies in our industry. We have one of the best global parks because we have helped disrupt our industry and set ten-year trends without state support or other shareholders. It has always been family and legacy.

Jürgen, Michael, Roland, and Thomas Mack
Image courtesy of Mack Rides. Jürgen, Michael, Roland, and Thomas Mack

How did you manage to change your portfolio at such a critical moment?

We have always been very hard working. Our actions were well timed because we keep our ears to the ground. We understood that we had to stop the production of certain products and develop others. It seems we are up to speed because we have projects lined up well into 2019. There is also always an element of luck!

You are in the business of emotions. You create experiences that people never forget. How have you anticipated emotional responses?

We receive up to 60,000 guests a day! That is over 5,5 million a year – a huge challenge! We feel with our visitors. We are always inspired to create new products.

I was the chairman of the board of the global association for our industry. The exchanges with other industry leaders were great learning experiences. I could feel where the trends were going when talking to them, an intuition that is impossible without emotional intelligence, without knowing what you want your visitors to feel.

As a boy, I used to go to the circuses that our clients produced. I used to sleep in their carriages and be part of the magic. We built their carriages with those emotions in mind. That is still how we produce our rides today. That little boy still lives in me and knows exactly what he enjoys.

How important is emotional intelligence?

The park is my life. I do my job with passion and emotion that translates into all Mack products. It is not only a technical achievement, but also an emotional one.

Every year first-year students at the University of Karlsruhe spend their first day at Europa-Park. We set up this initiative because I want to show students that they are embarking on a challenging journey, that they should face this journey and their emotions. Facing your fears leads to success. A rollercoaster is the best place to find that out! The fear of many seemingly impossible achievements can be overcome at our theme park.

Emotions and creativity are intrinsically linked, as are emotions and leadership. We see ourselves as a thinking factory and use the park as a vehicle to encourage young leaders and students from all backgrounds. We have science days where we invite around 30,000 students to playfully engage with physics and chemistry. We appeal to their emotions through the park environment, making sciences fun. We need more scientists and engineers!

Europa Park 2015
Image courtesy of Mack Rides. Europa Park 2015

You have created a world in itself and promising potential that is rather rare for an eighth generation business. How do you see the future?

I am happy that I have two sons, Michael and Thomas, that like the business, who are already in the management. Their younger sister will hopefully join soon. Michael and Thomas both bring new thinking to the table, projects and ideas they want to realise themselves. It is great to feel that there are new ideas flowing through the new generation. We mix tradition and new technologies that they have introduced us to. We recently entered the movie industry and expanded into virtual reality, which we use on our rides.

I learnt trust from my father who let me run Europa-Park at the age of twenty-four. He trusted and encouraged me. It is a gift I am passing on to my sons. You have to allow innovation even if you don’t understand it in the now.

We will see what time brings, but we feel prepared. Our first ninth generation member is already testing the rollercoasters, so I am very hopeful!

Tharawat Magazine, Issue 29, 2016