Truist lecture series features Dollywood Co. President Eugene Naughton '89
The tale of how Eugene Naughton '89 came into his current occupation isn't your typical employment backstory, and that's putting it mildly.
Naughton was the speaker at this month's Truist Global Capitalism Lecture Series, hosted on Nov. 2 by the Davis College of Business and Economics at Kyle Hall, and he opened his address by sharing his account of his first step toward his present job.
It was 2019, Naughton explained, and at that time, he was a vice president with Six Flags, leading international development for the popular amusement park corporation.
Late one night, while he was out of town for work, he got a phone call from an unexpected stranger.
To clarify: "Late one night" was 2:30 a.m., and "out of town" in Naughton's case means he was overseas, 12 time zones away, in Beijing, China.
And the "unexpected stranger" on the phone? That just happened to be country music legend Dolly Parton.
All in all, an unusual way to wake up, so you can probably understand Naughton's initial skepticism: "I was like, 'OK, someone's punking me.'"
"But it was her ... It was Dolly Parton," he explained, and she was calling from a part of the world where it was actually 2:30 p.m., well within 9-to-5 business hours.
"She wanted me to come work for her," Naughton recalled.
Cut to 2023: Naughton is now president of The Dollywood Co., which is co-owned by Parton and includes the Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, as well as Dollywood's Splash Country and Dollywood's DreamMore Resort and Spa, plus Dollywood's HeartSong Lodge & Resort, which had its grand opening Nov. 3, one day after Naughton spoke in Radford.
"It's really been a lot of fun for me to be a part of that experience," he said.
But in the grand scheme of things, he's just getting started.
Naughton – whose career in theme parks began as a teen, running a funnel cake stand at Paramount's King's Dominion in Richmond, Virginia – is now in the process of overseeing a 10-year, $500 million investment strategy that will launch a string of new Dollywood attractions and resort properties by the end of the 2020s.
Over the past four years, the company has also begun a brand evolution that has seen Dollywood expand its advertising range from six markets to 23, and Naughton makes no secret of his outsized ambitions for the future.
"I really believe we can be the No. 1 family destination in the U.S. because of our family-fortifying approach," he explained in his address. "We’re all about multi-generational experiences, from the age of 2 all the way to 92. It’s something that’s really always top of mind with us.”
Naughton said Dollywood practices that same sense of consideration behind the scenes as well: Employees and their dependents can visit the company’s healthcare clinic for a nominal fee, and the 4,000 staffers who work on the Dollywood campus have access to free lunches each day, a gesture that he said costs about $2.7 million a year but pays its own special dividends.
“It’s giving back to the people that help us deliver excellence,” he said.
The company also offers college tuition for anyone who works at its parks or resorts, part-time or full-time.
“You can apply for a two-year degree or a four-year degree or an advanced degree, and we’ll take care of the bill for you, as long as you’re working for us, no strings attached,” Naughton said, adding that he himself recently, at age 55, followed his wife’s suggestion and went back to school for his MBA.
“It was a good chance for me to just show everyone that, as president of the company, you could still learn more. And I encourage it,” Naughton said. “And probably, the thing I’m most proud of: 72 people have achieved their high school diplomas; while working there [at Dollywood], they finished their high school education.”
That sense of a personal connection is something Naughton told the audience he tries to bring to his own management style.
“I can't be in front of students and not tell you a few key lessons that some of the leaders that I worked with throughout my career taught me,” he said.
“Always, always make the people that you're working with feel special,” he advised. “Really understand the people you’re working with and what makes them tick; that is super important.”
One key to that goal is just plain old paying attention.
“When you get out into the workforce, listening is a skill that's really, really important. To be able to solve the problems that your team is dealing with, you really have to be a good listener,” Naughton said.
“And at the heart of everything that I am? It’s being a good servant leader. Do more for others than you're doing for yourself, and things typically turn out to be really, really good.”
Radford University's Associate Director for University Advancement Scott Hall first approached The Dollywood Co. president in June about returning to campus. He said Naughton’s international and domestic background in the theme-park industry made him a natural choice to deliver an address as part of the series.
“Eugene’s presentation covered an expansive, decade-long business initiative,” Hall added. “That aligned perfectly with the goals of the Truist Global Capitalism lecture, which are to stimulate thought and discussion about capitalism, the tenets of free enterprise and the best practices of successful organizations.”
In her closing remarks at the event, Davis College interim Dean Angela Stanton thanked Naughton for his appearance and also expressed her gratitude for the efforts of her administrative colleagues, faculty and office staff members, as well as the students who attended and the Truist Financial Corp., which sponsors the series.
"Because without the students, we would not be here," Stanton told attendees. "And without Truist, this lecture series that we've had since the fall of 2009 would not be continuing 14 years later."