When Tragedy Strikes a Family's Campground
How does a family-run campground plan for succession of ownership to cover all contingencies?
Look no further than Lake Rudolph Campground & RV Resort in Santa Claus, Ind., which was rocked in April by the untimely death of CEO Philip Koch.
The affable 47-year-old owner of one of the Midwest’s most popular campgrounds died on April 9, after he suffered cardiac arrest in Evansville on April 1.
Philip was the son of the late William A. Koch Sr., founder of the Southern Indiana campground in 1958 and a popular theme park nearby.
Philip Koch was CEO of HO HO HOldings LLC, the parent company of Lake Rudolph Campground & RV Resort, the Santa Claus Christmas Store, Kringle Place Shopping Center and Santa's Land LLC. Under his direction, the RV park grew from a 100-site campground to a 500-site destination resort including over 270 cabins and rental RVs. He helped design the layouts for Lake Rudolph's King Size Rental RVs and Rudolph's Christmas Cabins and was an integral part of the campground’s $4 million expansion, now in progress.
The local campground/resort attendance averages from 3,000 to 3,500 guests a day on most summer days – more than the Santa Claus town population of around 2,500.
Operations at the campground located on 168 acres did not miss a beat, however, as the park remained under the day-to-day management of Wayne Utley, a 30-year veteran as general manager of the park.
Meanwhile, ownership of the park now rests in the estate of Philip Koch and his sister, Dr. Kristi George, a neurologist who practices in Indianapolis. Leadership of the corporation is in the hands of her husband, Jim George, a successful restaurateur in Indianapolis.
Jim George stepped in to lead the corporation, though he prefers not to be called president and he was reluctant, at first, to move into Koch’s office after his death.
Since Koch’s death, Lake Rudolph Campground & RV Resort has been in transition, said Dave Lovell, director of marketing for HO HO HOldings LLC. “We’re still in that transition. It will be awhile before we are all used to what’s going on. It has been difficult but because someone stepped up from Day 1, that has been extremely helpful.”
Senior management has nearly 50 years experience in the RV park and campground business, Lovell noted.
Koch family members also own a theme park, Holiday World & Splashin' Safari, adjacent to Lake Rudolph. The CEO of that park, Philip’s brother Will, suddenly died in 2010. In contrast, questions involving the interpretation of the company’s shareholders agreement arose after Will’s death, and Koch family members turned the issue over to the court system.
Philip Koch’s death occurred just as Lake Rudolph Campground & RV Resort was ready to unveil a $4 million expansion, including 22 cabins and a new waterpark. The cabins are being opened as the season unfolds, while the opening of the waterpark was projected for June 13.
“There was a succession plan basically written within Philip’s will,” noted Lovell. “If you own a company, you really need to have a will, especially if it’s a family business and you have kids like Philip did.”
Besides his widow, Koch left behind two 19-year-old children for whom a trust was set up through the will. One child just finished her first year at Indiana University, while the other aspires to have a career in law enforcement.
Meanwhile, with the family’s blessing, Jim George has stepped up to lead the corporation for the foreseeable future, Lovell explained. “Philip was very versed in the RV park business and Jim is learning quickly,” Lovell said.
Jim George makes the drive from Indianapolis every week for a staff meeting. Then attendees break off into smaller meetings. George is given written reports.
“If something like this happens, you don’t want the public noticing any difference,” Lovell stressed. “If you have a succession plan and the people come and don’t notice anything different, that is the goal. You want to keep your customer service and everything going. It was vitally important that we keep everything going and we are.”
The campground has 12 fulltime employees, which balloons with 150 seasonals in the summer.
Part of Philip Koch’s legacy will be the hugely popular Halloween-themed weekends that he started in 2001. Since that time, the event has spilled over to seven weekends each fall, each of them booked solid. “It is the most popular thing we do,” Lovell said.
It solved the campground’s “shoulder season” concern and is so popular the campground doesn’t market the program, Lovell said.
The campground was voted one of the top 10 favorite parks in North America in 2011 in a Woodall’s nationwide guest survey.
Now, more than two months after Koch’s passing, Lovell said staff members still “miss him greatly. His vision. He had so many ideas he wanted to do. He had hundreds of ideas. There are lots of things we probably won’t do because they were in his head. The vision is what we’re going to miss. But we will continue to be a great business and a growing business.”