THE BLOG

Women in Business: Kim Schaefer, CEO of Great Wolf Resorts, Inc.

03/17/2015 03:58 pm ET | Updated May 17, 2015

Kim Schaefer is a 47 year old mother of two who has strived to provide families the ultimate vacation getaway experience for more than 15 years. A CPA by education, Kim started in the lodging industry as controller for a hotel in Madison, Wisconsin and eventually found her way to The Great Lakes Companies, Inc., which became Great Wolf Resorts, Inc. with the completion of its first waterpark resort in 1997. As one of the five founding partners, Kim has built the Great Wolf Lodge brand from the ground up, turning a single location in Wisconsin into North America's largest chain of indoor waterpark resorts with 12 properties across the U.S. and Canada. Due to her widespread influence, she was featured as the first female CEO on the popular CBS series Undercover Boss in 2010.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
This may not be your typical answer, but I am a better mom because of Great Wolf Lodge. I'm a better mom because I work. My career has forced me to make time for my family. I've been active, focused and aware, not taking a passive approach to being a parent or a spouse. It has encouraged me to live in the now. I don't have as much time with my family as I would like, so making the time, taking the time and focusing on what is truly a priority is something I do not take for granted. It has not just been "part of my life," but required the same amount of dedication and work as my professional life.

What's one thing you would like people to know about you as a leader?
I have high expectations for those I work with and those who work for me, but I also want my peers to know it can be done in a fun environment. I hold people accountable. We all have jobs that need to be done, but that does not mean we have to do them in a pressurized, strict and uptight environment. Our corporate culture is unique - we howl during the day, we wear wolf ears, we have impromptu parties with snacks, we celebrate department milestones, but we also meet and exceed our goals, work hard and move our company forward. You're not a weaker leader if you foster an environment that celebrates fun - you're a leader who knows how to motivate your team and understands what makes people tick.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Great Wolf Resorts?
This is such an interesting question for me because I always had strictly "business" positions. I'm a CPA by education, and I had a career focused in a "one track" path. As Great Wolf Resorts grew and I was given the opportunity to grow with it, new opportunities opened for me. I have particularly been surprised by and truly enjoyed learning about developing our brand and tapping into the creative side of our business. It is what sets us apart from other family destinations and I have been surprised by how much I have enjoyed that side of the business. I take great pride in it. I never would have thought those would be areas of business I would get involved with and it's been a great experience combining my traditional business training with the opportunity to be creative to develop a memorable family brand.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Great Wolf Resorts?
Since 1997, we have provided fabulous memories for millions of families. That is truly the biggest highlight. To have been a part of this great growth and continue to welcome more new families each year - it's a highlight that continues to grow!

Challenges: Everyone can talk about the economic impact of the recession, and the many challenges that it brought to their business. It required our company to make tough decisions that impacted me personally and professionally. It's hard to stay focused during tough times and have the patience to weather the storm, but that is what I focused on as it had to be done.

I think the greatest challenge has been the fact that the recession prevented us from continuing to build new lodges. That is a part of our business that I love and have missed doing. I love the energy and organized chaos of building a new resort. I'm excited that we are starting to move forward and grow again. Our newest hotel, which opened in June 2014, was a LONG time coming and we have more great experiences ahead.

What advice can you offer to women who want to launch their own business?
I honestly don't look at "advice for women" versus "advice for men." To me it's about having good business sense and paving your own path. I believe hard work is key. Never view your role as one with boundaries, but one that continues to move forward and evolve.

Surround yourself with good people. Don't be competitive. Recognize your weaknesses and tap into those same weaknesses that are strengths for others.

There will always be people in your life who don't think you are good in business because you're a woman, or because you're younger or because they just don't like you. You won't be able to change their perspective. Instead, focus on doing the best you can in your role and reach out to those who do support you. Pave your path as wide as you want it to be and move forward.

What is the most important lesson you've learned by starting your own business?
While I did not start Great Wolf Lodge, I have been with the company since we began and have worked and seen it grow from a single hotel in Wisconsin to 12 - soon to be 13 - amazing resorts in North America. I learned early on to surround myself with good people - people who complement your weaknesses, not your strengths. When you build a well-balanced team, this makes you and the company stronger. It's not about ego; it's about doing what's best for moving the company forward. Ultimately that also brings personal success and growth as well.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
There is no magic answer. Sundays have always been important family days for us, and they continue to be. Even if we don't have a set "plan," Sundays are the day we have always set aside for family time.

Sharing a meal as a family is important. In our home, especially as my kids got older, that meal was breakfast. I make it a point to not schedule early morning meetings so I can have breakfast with my family before they head to school. Dinners for us were and continue to be tough. Between dance team, sports and the many other activities my kids and my husband and I are involved in, dinner together was just impossible. That didn't mean family time together was impossible; we just made sure that breakfast became our important mealtime. It worked for us and continues to, even though my kids are now nearly grown.

We also maintain a family calendar, and I have always added family events to my work calendar. I was a "dance mom" and treasurer for my daughter's dance team and made sure I attended the events I could. Sometimes I missed things, but keeping a calendar helped make sure I was there when I could be, and my kids knew up front if I couldn't be. It helped set expectations for all of us so we weren't disappointed.

It's also important to take time for yourself. I make a point to walk every day. It's my time to clear my head. I have to make a conscious decision to fit walking in. That means either going to bed later (because I work after hours from home), or getting up earlier so I can still fit it in my day. That quiet time is important to me (physically and mentally) and my dog loves it, too.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
As I mentioned already, I understand that there is not 100% gender equality across the workplace yet. However, I have never considered myself a "woman in the workplace." I have always looked at myself as a professional who worked hard, wanted to fully learn and understand every facet of my business, and never put boundaries on myself because of my age, my gender, my current title, or discipline.

Have I encountered issues solely because I am a woman? Yes. But I have never let that deter me or hold me back. Instead, I have always focused on doing the best I could at the job I was in and learning all I could as I paved my own path.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
While I have never had a "formal" mentor, informal mentorship has been a part of my entire career. Someone has always given me advice that I have taken to heart. Whether it was a board member who early on in my career advised me to listen more before responding or listening to the ups and downs colleagues and peers have had, I have always learned. I truly am a sponge. Any time someone has taken the time to give me advice or invited me to be a part of a new process or opportunity, I have taken it.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Women who start their own businesses always inspire me: taking the initiative, finding your place, and making a living from your passion. That is inspiring.

What do you want Great Wolf Resorts to accomplish in the next year?
Great Wolf Resorts is poised for growth. I believe this is our year to really take us from a regionally known indoor waterpark resort company to a nationally recognized family entertainment destination company. Our 13th resort will open at the end of 2015 and we have several new locations in the works. I'm excited by what lies ahead.