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Member Profile: The Show Must Always Go On

August 9, 2023

Skerbeck Entertainment Group, Inc. and its Lasting Family Legacy

By Bona Van Dis, originally published in SBAM’s July/August 2023 issue of Focus magazine

As one of the best carnival operators in North America, Jamie Skerbeck, CEO/President of Skerbeck Entertainment Group, Inc., should feel a great sense of pride. His family-owned and operated business has been around for 170 years, and it’s legacy continues with the current generation of dedicated family members, including his spouse, Sonja, sisters, Niki and Tory, and his brother-in-law, John.

The Skerbeck family’s seasonal business runs carnival attractions including rides, food and games in an outdoor setting. These carnivals are affiliated with a variety of large events throughout Michigan, with three additional events in Indiana and the Minnesota State Fair. At the height of the summer season, they employ approximately 100 staff.

The family actively involves itself in a number of associations and boards and is consistently acknowledged for its excellence and dedication to the industry.

We asked Skerbeck about how they keep a family business running successfully, the challenges of seasonal labor and how they maintain safety for everyone:

Focus: Skerbeck Entertainment’s history is fascinating. Tell us about it.

Skerbeck: Skerbeck Entertainment Group (SEG) was formed in 2014 when my father, Joe Skerbeck was ready to retire from the business. My father is the fifth generation of “showman” in this business and my siblings and their spouses purchased his business assets as part of the family’s succession. Many people are interested in the longevity of our family’s business, spanning more than 170 years and currently on the sixth generation!

Focus: What has your family done to keep the business successfully running for so long?

Skerbeck: “The show must go on” has been engrained in the family since its circus roots. Obstacles over those many years included the World Wars, economic depressions, public health crises and lack of available workers. Every time the family is presented with an obstacle, we’ve continued with “the show must go on” and made strategic changes or pivoted to adapt to things outside our control.

Diversification has been an important part of our adaptation strategy. We operate a number of revenue centers (rides, food, games and trucking) which could each be a business of their own. This helps us manage costs by not outsourcing work and helps us pivot focus to certain operations when parts of the business are unable to operate, like during the COVID shut-down.

Focus: How have you streamlined the process of creating such big events?

Skerbeck: Planning is critical to success. The timeline between the closing of one event and the opening of the next is seldom more than a few days. To facilitate the short turn around, the planning begins with event sponsors in January of each year to review promotions, ride selection and layout. One week prior to the start, I meet onsite to confirm layout plans and any last-minute changes. Then I provide employees with a driving sheet that details instructions of truck and trailer load-outs and locations for equipment placement on a map.

Focus: Tell us about your hiring process and what you do to find the best people for the job, especially in regard to traveling workforce acquisition.

Skerbeck: This is the most challenging part of running our business. Prior to the use of cell phones and social media, hiring was “word of mouth” recruitment by other employees, or help wanted signs at local fairgrounds. Occasionally we would place an ad with a local radio station or newspapers.

But in the last 10 years, finding anyone willing to work 50 to 60 hours per week as a general laborer has been difficult. And, now the population base in Michigan is declining, resulting in a severe shortage of workers. Plus, our work requires being outdoors in all weather conditions and interacting with the public.

So for the past six years, we have used H-2B visa workers to augment our American workforce. The H-2B program is administered by the U.S. Department of Labor and provides seasonal workers for a number of industries. In Michigan, Mackinac Island hospitality workers and landscaping companies also use the

Focus: Explain how the H-2B program works, and can anything be done to help overcome these seasonal worker challenges?

Skerbeck: While the H-2B program has been helpful, the way the program is administered creates other challenges. The demand for H-2B visa workers exceeds the statutory allotment by a factor of three! Because of that the Department of Labor implemented a lottery system to distribute the visas. The lottery “winners” are announced in early January which means employers are never sure of their workforce availability until weeks before their season begins.

The situation is dire when you “lose” the lottery, which is the more likely scenario given the increased demand on the annual program. In 2023, the odds of “winning” was less than 30 percent. It’s truly a crazy way to run a business!

Legislation to correct issues with the H-2B system are frequently stalled in Congress as the issue is often incorrectly lumped into an immigration problem, which it isn’t. H-2B workers don’t want to stay in the U.S. They work, send money home to their families, and look forward to returning home when the season ends.

SBAM is helpful with providing resources to members using H-2B workers, specifically for connecting users of the program to one another, so we can collectively advocate for change. Our businesses need those changes to survive.

Focus: How do you ensure safety for your staff and the general public?

Skerbeck: This is a very important issue.

For our staff, along with safety videos, we have in-house training on Personal Protective Equipment and material handling safety, written in both English and Spanish. We use our company app to document that employees have received and reviewed the materials. We also hire third-party safety trainers to provide us with job hazard analyses and recommendations on employee safety risks and mitigation.

For our guests, we ensure our rides go through a number of safety checks. Rides are dismantled and reassembled each week which allows for close inspections on the moving parts. Our staff inspects the rides daily, prior to each opening, and three people sign off on each inspection report daily (the inspector, the ride operator and the safety coordinator). 

Additionally, a number of our staff are certified with special safety credentials, and the states we operate in all have state-employed ride inspectors who inspect the rides on a routine basis. Many local jurisdictions also have requirements that building, fire and electrical inspectors review the rides prior to opening each event.

Focus: What are your wisest insights as a entrepreneur?

Skerbeck: Adaptation to the business environment is incredibly important for long-term survival. In 2020, during COVID, every single one of our events was shut down. With no income for one year, we quickly had to adapt then pivot to operating drive through food concessions (as soon as the State of Michigan allowed for limited operations).

It’s also important to be involved with organizations like SBAM to keep an eye on pending changes to legislation and be able to advocate for legislation that allows you to operate your type of business. Being able to plan ahead for tax code changes, or regulatory changes with trucking, safety and human resources, are all critical for survival. We’re grateful for the organizations like SBAM who help position us for long-term success in Michigan.

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