Corporate Management Team

  • Andrew Wexler

    Chief Executive Officer

    As CEO, Andrew directs a range of strategic initiatives to successfully leverage the company’s core competencies in entertainment, service and operational excellence to deliver shareholder value. During his tenure, HFE has grown its profitability and strengthened its balance sheet despite the challenging economic times. Prior to joining HFE in 2007, Andrew was a co-founder and Chief Financial Officer of Derivion, a pioneer in internet-based billing, and Chief Operating Officer of Martin Capital, a real estate development and finance firm. His work experience also includes time at Arthur Anderson and McKinsey & Company.

    Andrew earned his BBA and Master of Accountancy degree from the University of Georgia. He obtained his MBA from Harvard Business School where he graduated as a George F. Baker Scholar. He and his wife live in Alpharetta, Georgia with their two children.

  • Jane Cooper

    President & Chief Operating Officer

    Jane is President and Chief Operating Officer, leading day-to-day operations for all HFE properties. She joined HFE in 2006 as president of HFE’s Attraction Management Group. In this position, Jane directed corporate growth potential while providing operational and management expertise to HFE property leaders. She was integral in helping to diversify HFE with the acquisition of Adventure Aquarium and Newport Aquarium in 2008 and the management of Darien Lake and Elitch Gardens in 2011. Previously she served 25 years with Paramount Parks and was president for eight of those years.

    She received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Cincinnati and her MBA from Xavier. As a passionate advocate for the industry, she actively serves the IAAPA organization (International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions). Jane chaired the IAAPA Board of Directors in 2005 and is currently on the IAAPA Foundation Board of Directors. In her local community, she is committed to education and serves on the Central Piedmont Community College Board of Trustees. She and her husband, Steve, live with their two children in Charlotte, NC.

  • Ryan Connolly

    Chief Financial Officer

    As CFO, Ryan oversees our portfolio of growth initiatives, capital structure and consolidated financial reporting.

    Most recently, Ryan served as group finance director at Marlin Equity Partners, a $3B private equity firm. He worked on financial and operational due diligence and transaction execution for Marlin’s acquisitions. Prior to Marlin, Ryan was with Deloitte where he worked in the M&A transaction services group supporting strategic and private equity investors with financial due diligence.

    He earned his bachelor’s degree from Washington and Lee University and his master’s degree in business administration from the Goizueta Business School at Emory University.

  • Rick Baker

    Senior Vice President, Insights & Analytics

    Rick leads insights and analytics for all HFE properties. By capturing the right consumer insights, he oversees Research. During his career with HFE, which began in 1975, Rick headed several divisions including Research and Development, Information Systems, Design and Development and Marketing. This cross-departmental experience gives him unique insight to HFE’s core consumer.

    Rick holds a BA in Economics and a MBA from Drury University in Springfield, MO. Rick is recognized not only for his strategic marketing abilities and creativity, but also for his strong community leadership. He has served on the Marketing Advisory Boards for Tourism in Branson, MO and Pigeon Forge, TN.

    Rick and his wife, Kitty, reside in Roswell, GA, and have four grown children in Missouri, California and Washington, DC.

  • John Carson

    Senior Vice President, Human Resources

    John has been with leading HR initiatives at HFE since 2005. He oversees corporate policies and programs dealing with all aspects of human resource management. He is also responsible for Herschend University, HFE's corporate university for learning and development. Before joining HFE, John was Director of Human Resources for Saab Cars USA. During his 22-year career in the automotive industry, he held management and executive positions in operations, sales, strategic planning and human resources.

    John holds an undergraduate degree in marketing from Georgia State University, an advanced management degree from the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, and a Master of Science degree in Human Resource Management from Georgia State University. John resides in Lawrenceville, Georgia with his wife, Cathy, and their two daughters. An exercise enthusiast, John is an avid cyclist, runner and tennis player.

  • Steve Earnest

    Senior Vice President & General Counsel

    As Senior Vice President & General Counsel & Secretary, Steve is responsible for all legal and regulatory issues affecting the company and its subsidiaries. He counsels the company on corporate governance, commercial transactions, employment issues, litigation, and acquisitions. He is a current member of the IAAPA North America Government Relations Committee. Before joining HFE, Steve spent 11 years as in-house counsel at BellSouth Corporation and AT&T practicing commercial law, start-up operations for interstate telecommunications services, and federal telecommunications law before the Federal Communications Commission.

    He holds both a bachelor's and master's degree in accounting and is a Certified Public Accountant. He began a career in accounting with KPMG where he was promoted to the management group. Steve later returned to law school at the University of Mississippi where he graduated Magna Cum Laude and was editor-in-chief of the Mississippi Law Journal. He began his legal career with the Brunini Grantham Grower & Hewes law firm where he practiced complex commercial litigation, focusing on class action lawsuits.

    Steve is an active member of Perimeter Church, where he previously served on the Board of Kingdom Investments. Steve and his wife, Stacey, have three sons and live in Cumming, GA.

  • John Fitzgibbons

    Senior Vice President, Operations

    John serves as Senior Vice President of the Attractions Group. He is focused on developing and executing the operational plans of HFE properties while driving new business. Working alongside HFE properties, he leads strategic planning programs across the company. With 25 years of experience at HFE, John has developed his operational expertise by serving in leadership positions in operations, finance and management while working with numerous properties. He continues to play an integral part in developing new startup projects as well as acquisitions.

    John received his undergraduate degree in Accounting and Business Administration from Missouri Valley College. He serves on numerous community boards and associations in Missouri. John and his wife, Cynthia, have two daughters and reside in Nixa, MO.

  • Gerald Rakestraw

    Senior Vice President, Safety

    Gerald is Senior Vice President for Safety. In this role, he oversees safety operations at the property level, working with each of the safety directors to assure compliance and to build and share best practices. He is also responsible for strengthening the alignment between safety, maintenance and attractions.

    Prior to this role, Gerald was General Manager of Stone Mountain Park, the state of Georgia’s most visited tourist attraction. Under his leadership, the park became a family destination offering year-round activities. In 2006, he led the successful development of Snow Mountain which has become a key attraction at Stone Mountain Park. Before being tapped as the general manager of the park in 2004, he served as attractions & operations director.

    Gerald graduated from the University of Georgia and received a Masters of Public Administration from the University of North Carolina. He is also a former board member for the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau. Gerald and his wife, Carrie, have two daughters and live in north Atlanta.

  • Russ Steinbeck

    Senior Vice President & Chief Technology Officer

    As CTO, Russ leads the information technology organization for HFE. Prior to joining the team, Russ built a career focused on managing teams in customer-centric cultures, including a role as senior vice president of franchise support training and operational systems for Express Oil Change & Service Center. While there, he drove the development of a proprietary system that blended operations, key performance indicators (KPIs) and IT.

    Earlier in his career, Russ worked as vice president, sales operations and in-store services, for Mulberry Thai Silks, a global neckwear company. While there, he helped develop distribution and purchasing software and systems that supported in-store services departments.

    Russ and his wife, Sarah, and their four kids, live in north Atlanta.

  • Rick Todd

    Senior Vice President, Enterprise Risk Management

    Rick has the critical role of overseeing all risk management for HFE. He leads the team in navigating the ever-changing guidelines and regulations as it pertains to data security, healthcare reform and all other areas of risk for the Herschend family owned businesses. He has a long history with HFE and began his career at Silver Dollar City in 1967 as a summer parking attendant. Over the next several years, Rick was promoted to a variety of management roles overseeing park operations. He was promoted and transferred to Silver Dollar City Tennessee in 1976 (later to become Dollywood) as Director of Operations. Rick returned to Missouri in the 1980s, serving as General Manager and Corporate Vice President of White Water. He later led the Human Resources Division before guiding Corporate Development and Design. Rick has been instrumental in launching new initiatives for HFE, including the initial development of the Grand Palace concept, Grand Village, Showboat Branson Belle, and in the negotiation with the State of Georgia for the leasing and development of Stone Mountain Park.

    Rick has previously served on several Board of Directors including Ozark Marketing Council, Branson Chamber of Commerce, Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music. Rick lives in Branson, MO with his wife, Kim. They have two sons and one granddaughter.

  • Gayle Barkley

    Vice President, Business Process Office

    Gayle has held numerous positions at HFE and currently serves as Vice President of Business Process. In this role, she has helped our organization fundamentally rethink our internal and external processes to improve customer service, cut operational costs and leverage our existing assets. She is responsible for evaluating and redesigning key processes across the company.

    Prior to this role, Gayle served as Vice President for Managed Properties. She joined HFE in 2008 to lead operations at Stone Mountain Park in Atlanta, overseeing all of the Park’s day-to-day management including the development of Snow Mountain, the Park’s winter snow attraction.

    Gayle has an outstanding operational track record, from front gate to retail, having worked in the theme park business her entire career including serving as General Manager of California’s Great America Theme Park. Gayle resides in North Atlanta with her husband Andy.

  • Jason Blain

    Vice President, Strategic Alliances

    As Vice President of Strategic Alliances, Partnerships and Brand Alliances, Jason is responsible for developing and managing mutually beneficial relationships with third-party companies that share HFE's values. Since joining HFE in 1996, Jason has been instrumental in building and expanding relationships with brands including Smithsonian, National Geographic, Humana and Coca-Cola. Jason holds a strong background in the entertainment industry. Prior to HFE, he co-founded Entertainment Properties, an Orlando-based consulting and development firm for leisure recreation and theme park attractions. He also served as Vice President at Management Resources, one of the nation's largest management consulting firms for the leisure industry. He previously worked with Walt Disney Company's Attraction Division, where he played a key role in the EPCOT Center Finance Department.

    Jason earned his Master of Business Management/Finance from Wake Forest University and his bachelor's degree from Pepperdine University. He and his wife, Mary Katherine, live in Duluth, GA and are highly active in the lives of their four sons.

  • Steve Hallowell

    Vice President, Marketing

    As Vice President of Marketing, Steve leads a team of marketing professionals focused on driving marketing and sales growth across all HFE properties.

    Steve joined HFE in 2012 and gained valuable property experience as Director of Marketing and Sales at Darien Lake, just outside of Buffalo, New York. After his second season at Darien Lake, Steve joined the team in Peachtree Corners and broadened his responsibilities to include all of the HFE properties.

    Steve has over 25 years of experience in sales and marketing. He has held a number executive positions with Eastman Kodak Company, most recently as the Global Consumer Experience Director and Global Communications Director. He also led marketing and sales for Shade Tree Greetings, a greeting card company in Rochester, New York, and was a principle consultant at Altreya, a Rochester-based marketing consulting firm.

    Steve holds an undergraduate degree from Rutgers University. Steve resides in Cumming, Georgia with his wife and two sons.

  • Stephanie Hyder

    Vice President, Finance

    As Vice President of Finance, Stephanie is responsible for overall accounting and financial reporting for Herschend Family Entertainment (HFE). She leads a team of accounting professionals responsible for the company’s centralized accounting and finance functions to include debt and cash management, general accounting, and tax reporting.

    Stephanie joined HFE in 1999 and has served in a variety of corporate financial roles and as treasurer for HFE Share It Forward. She began her career as an auditor with Ernst & Young, one of the largest CPA and advisory firms in the world. She is a Certified Public Accountant and a graduate of Missouri State University. Stephanie and her husband, Jason have two children and live in Ozark, Missouri. They enjoy weekends at the lake, traveling, horseback and mountain bike rides, and attending sporting events.

  • Julie Phillips

    Vice President, Content Strategy

    As Vice President of Content, Julie is responsible for building new growth opportunities for the company through expansion into television, film, publishing, digital media, licensing and more. This diversification strategy includes the development and execution of projects based on existing IP, as well as new IP through partnerships and strategic acquisitions.

    Julie began her career at Herschend in high school, when she developed the entertainment department at Stone Mountain Park. Prior to returning to Herschend, she held business and creative roles with Miramax, NBC, Raytheon, and SeaWorld.

    Julie received her BS in Business Administration from Pepperdine University and her MBA from Harvard Business School. She and her husband, Jake, live in Suwanee, GA with their two children and two dogs.

  • Merrill Puckett-Miller

    Vice President, Guest Experiences

    Merrill has been in the entertainment design industry since 1991, working with some of the top entertainment and retail brands in the world. Since joining HFE in 2005, Merrill's primary focus is the development of compelling guest experiences from concept and feasibility through installation. She is a leader of the core creative team and manages many of HFE's key projects. Previously, she spent seven years with Paramount Parks, serving in a number of management roles including Director, Creative Development and Brand Management. There she worked on or developed major branded attractions such as Nickelodeon's Splat City, The Outer Limits: Flight of Fear, and Titanic: The Movie on Tour.

    Merrill holds a bachelor's degree in International Business from The George Washington University and is a winner of three THEA awards from the Themed Entertainment Association. She lives in Orlando with her husband, Scott, their son and their two West Highland White Terriers.

  • Bob Shreve

    Vice President, Attractions Development

    As Corporate Vice President, Attractions Development, Bob leverages his creativity and talent in the master planning and development of attractions at all HFE theme parks. In addition, he assists in concept development for future growth and expansion. Before joining HFE in 2004, Bob spent more than 20 years in the entertainment industry, having worked for such well-known brands as Walt Disney Imagineering and Universal Studios. His range of experience includes the development of branded attractions like Muppet 3-D Movie, Tower of Terror, Jurassic Park River Adventure and Revenge of the Mummy; as well as theme park development for Disney/MGM Studios Europe and Universal Studios Dubailand.

    Bob graduated from Fairmont State College with a Bachelor of Science in theater, and received a Masters of Arts degree from West Virginia University. Bob and his wife, Judy, have one son, Luke, and reside in Alpharetta, GA. Bob likes to spend his spare time putting his Appalachian heritage to work, building and crafting items from wood and other found materials.

  • Sara Van Pelt

    Vice President, Revenue

    As Vice President of Revenue, Sara oversees the strategic planning, direction and implementation of all the food and retail operations and systems for HFE properties. She is responsible for driving profit while promoting the individual property brand and has a successful track record of developing people and teams while at the same time building a strong business unit.

    She started as merchandise manager at Stone Mountain Park, and then rose to director of revenue. Most recently, Sara served as Stone Mountain Park’s vice president and assistant general manager. Prior to joining HFE, she had worked in increasingly senior posts centered on retail at King’s Island and Hard Rock Park.

  • Rhonda Youngblood

    Vice President, Benefits and Compensation

    Rhonda has been with HFE since the early-1990s, serving in a variety of financial management roles for both the regional and corporate teams. She now acts as Vice President of Benefits and Compensation. Rhonda began her career as a Senior Auditor with BKD, one of the largest CPA and advisory firms in the country.

    A graduate of Missouri State University, Rhonda and her husband, Doug, enjoy life on their farm in northwest Arkansas. In addition to tending to her gardens, she also considers herself one of NASCAR's biggest fans.