HR Helps Build First U.S.-based LEGOLAND Theme Park

July 1, 1999
Thirty miles north of San Diego inCarlsbad, California, a miniature New York cityscape has been erected withmulticolored plastic interlocking bricks - just one of nearly 40 attractions andrides at the first U.S.-based LEGOLAND theme park.

    Although it’s animpressive sight, the real constru ction took place behind the scenes - brick bybrick, person by person - as the company’s human resources director, DonnaSchmidt, helped recruit and hire a new management team and create a uniquecorporate culture.

    The LEGO Group,based in Billund, Denmark, makes trademark LEGO toy sets, and will generateroughly $1.1 billion in revenue this year. LEGOLAND California, which openedMarch 20, 1999, is the company’s third theme park in the toy maker’s chain.

    Schmidt has been theHR director since March 1998. Not only did she and her staff recruit and hireroughly 1,000 full-time, part-time and seasonal employees, but she helped builda corporate culture that includes the concept of employees as “ModelCitizens.”

    Workforce spoke withSchmidt to learn about how HR operates at LEGOLAND California.


How difficult was the challengeto open a new theme park?
It was a challenge and aonce-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Since this was the first LEGOLAND theme parkin the United States, we had to develop and put in place a lot of newstrategies.
    One of our firstpriorities was to hire seven directors and 30 key managers. We also had toput our HR team in place, which was one of the first teams assembled. Webrought them in early to support staffing of the park. We now have nine HRmembers year round, plus an additional six who work on a part-time orseasonal basis.
How much lead-time did you giveyourselves to hire the directors and managers?
We started about 18 months beforeour opening to identify the team managers in the organization. A lot of itwas based on profiles that we had developed.
    We looked forpeople who are committed to creating a unique, family theme-park experience,and for core competencies in the theme-park industry. In other words, wesought people who could understand the business and get excited about it atthe same time.
It seems like a unique set ofqualifications. What recruitment techniques did you use?
We did a lot of networking withpeople in the industry, we used contacts with the International Associationof Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA), and we did a large amount ofadvertising for qualified candidates. As a result, we have a wonderfulleadership team with a variety of experiences and background from across thecountry.
Did HR hire everyone fromlandscaping and maintenance people to entertainers?
We hired every discipline requiredto operate the park.
How much time did you spenddeveloping the LEGOLAND culture?
We spent a great deal of timecreating a high-performance environment focused on guest service. Certainlythe LEGO Group is rich in culture. The company is concerned about qualityand about the development of people. All the LEGO toy products are aboutcreativity, learning, play and getting children to use their imaginations.So we had a rich history and foundation from the LEGO Group, which helped usdefine how that would play out in a theme park - a relatively new businessunit of the LEGO Group.
How did you hammer home theculture within the management group?
We spent a lot of time defining ourvision statement and aligning that with the LEGO Group. We worked as a teamto define our mission, the purpose for why we exist, the values that wewanted to adopt in terms of what we stand for as a company. We then made ourdecisions and built our team around that.
    For example, wehave a banner focused on guest services (“Make someone a hero today”).After we got together as a team and created all of this, many strategieswere implemented to cement this culture. From there, we struggled andstruggled to find a unique name to refer to our employees, and that’s whenwe came up with Model Citizens (MCs). We really found this to be a key piecein shaping what we’re looking for at every level of the organization.
What sort of recruitingtechniques did you use to find your Model Citizens?
We recruited from a variety ofsources, we partnered with local educational institutions, and withcommunity, governmental and religious organizations. We were fortunateenough to have a lot of momentum from the media coverage of the park. Wealso held a dozen or so job fairs, where we screened, interviewed andselected candidates for these positions.
    We now have 850Model Citizens, and we’re still hiring and looking to bring on anadditional 250 year round, and another 250 during summer.
How does the concept of ModelCitizens contribute to the overall betterment of the company?
LEGOLAND is a country for kids, andin this country we have Model Citizens - ambassadors who serve as examplesfor our guests. We’re creating an experience here that’s veryinteractive.
    Our MCs haveclear roles and responsibilities. It’s up to them to ensure that weservice our guests well and exceed their expectations. We train LEGOLANDleaders to be open and approachable, and we encourage our people to takeresponsibility, to solve problems, resolve conflicts and get the informationthey need to do their jobs.
How do you train them to becomeModel Citizens?
It begins from the time they callour job line or hear about LEGOLAND. They fill out an application forcitizenship, not employment.    Everything we do is builtaround the concept that this is a place where if you want to come to work,you’re going to have to meet our standards and be a cut above the rest.
    We also share alot of information as part of our orientation, and we ask people who applyfor a position with us if they can meet the Model Citizen profile forLEGOLAND.
What sort of unique HR issuescome as a result of being a theme park?
Our park is built for children ages2 through 12, and we have to have people who enjoy working with children. Webuilt our Model Citizen program to help us focus on service and care of ourguests, and on how we treat each other.
    We have highexpectations for performance and behavior in the workplace. We drug test ourpeople and we conduct background checks. We’re also working with a rangeof people from age 16 to people just out of retirement. That’s verydiverse in terms of age, and variety of backgrounds and work experiences.
How do you keep the balance withsuch a diverse workforce?
Right now, we’re investing a lotof time training our MCs to be effective team members and team leaders. Ourpeople actually go through two full days of team training, which helps themunderstand their own work style and preferences for interacting with others,so that we can build on each other’s strengths and differences.
How do you monitor performanceand behavior?
We have key expectations that wecommunicate to our MCs, and we’ve trained our supervisors to beresponsible for the performance of their teams. We try to instill a sense ofownership and responsibility in every person to ensure that we’re ahigh-performance work place.
Is it tough to handle HR issueswhen your company is headquartered in Billund, Denmark?
Our corporate office for GlobalFamily Attractions here in Carlsbad operates autonomously and independentlyunder some very broad guidelines from the LEGO Group.
Have there been any HRdifferences as a result of working for a Danish company?
The biggest difference I see is theDanish culture is very communicative. This particular company reallyencourages a lot of openness, and we have a very people-orientedenvironment.
    Our policies andpractices are designed to ensure high performance and to recognize andreward people for doing quality work and managing themselves consistent withour values. We also assist people in their learning and development, andthat’s very much a LEGO value and the Danish culture.
How involved is HR with theday-to-day operation of the theme park?
Human resources is a partnershipbetween all of our departments, and we’re actively involved in supportingthe people who operate the park.
But doesn’t the theme parkindustry, in general, have a relatively high turnover rate?
Yes. Since we’ve only been openless than six weeks, it’s hard to say what our turnover will be. Sure,we’ve had some turnover, but mostly it’s that initiation process of justshaking things out.
    Altogether, wehave a stable workforce at LEGOLAND because we’ve created many corefull-time positions, and provided benefits our MCs' need to supportthemselves, their families and their career objectives.

Workforce, July 1999, Vol.78, No. 7, pp. 78-80  SubscribeNow!