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Six Flags considers selling more parks, eying big budget cuts

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January 28, 2008

The financial roller coaster ride for Fiesta Texas' parent company Six Flags Inc. has taken another dramatic turn.

Amid speculation from some industry observers that the deeply indebted Six Flags could be headed for bankruptcy, company executives have filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission a plan that calls for huge spending cuts and the possible sale of more parks.

Six Flags operates an amusement park in Pacific, Mo., along with 20 other parks around the nation.

Six Flags CEO Mark Shapiro is leading the turnaround effort for the company, which owns 21 theme parks, including San Antonio's Fiesta Texas. Some industry observers are skeptical, however, that Shapiro can overcome the hurdle of roughly $2 billion in debt inherited from previous Six Flags management.

Dennis Speigel, president of Cincinnati-based International Theme Park Services Inc., says the debt load is a major issue. Last week he told the Business Journal: "You could bring back Walt Disney (to run Six Flags) and that company is still going to struggle."

Shapiro, a former Disney executive who came to Six Flags from ESPN, remains undaunted. But he is preparing to make some more big changes.

According to the company's SEC filing, Six Flags is prepared to slash media spending and trim personnel this year.

The plan is to cut operating expenses by as much as $60 million in 2008. As much as half of that is expected to come from "marketing-related" cuts, SEC documents state.

Six Flags officials, who want to cut loose one of the company's three advertising agencies, plan to reduce radio spending and concentrate more on Internet-driven opportunities that will attract more teens.

Still more cuts are planned.

Six Flags officials want to slash another $25 million to $30 million from operating costs by cutting personnel and getting rid of what they characterize as inefficient rides and attractions.

The personnel move would result in a reduction of the company's "full-time (employee) headcount," primarily through an early retirement program, according to the SEC filing.

An additional labor adjustment would come as a result of the implementation of what Six Flags officials refer to as a "real-time seasonal labor tracking system."

The trimming may not end there. According to the SEC filing, Six Flags will consider selling off as many as three more theme parks if the price is right.

Previous management shuttered Six Flags Astroworld. In June 2006, the Houston Business Journal reported that Angel/McIver Interests LP had finalized the purchase of the 104 acres where Astroworld was located.

In 2007, Six Flags sold off seven additional parks.

The company still has not reopened its New Orleans theme park, which it claims suffered substantial damage caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Scott Rothbort, a New Jersey-based investment adviser and professor of finance at Seton Hall University's Stillman School of Business, says Six Flags may indeed need to sell off some parks.

"It's just a bad business model," Rothbort says, summing up Six Flags' ongoing struggles.

"None of this surprises me," says Speigel about Six Flags' planned cuts.

Nor would he be especially surprised if Fiesta Texas or the real estate beneath it were eventually sold.

Nor would he be especially surprised if Fiesta Texas or the real estate beneath it were eventually sold.

Former Fiesta Texas executive Paul Serff, now president and CEO of the Texas Travel Industry Association, says he has no idea what the future holds for Six Flags or its San Antonio theme park.

"All I know is that Fiesta Texas is a great park and an important asset to San Antonio," Serff says.

Still optimistic

Shapiro took over as Six Flags' CEO in January 2006.

Early last year he announced plans to significantly increase ad spending and invest in new rides as part of an ongoing effort to try and steadily grow park attendance and revenues.

In a March 27, 2007, presentation to Lehman Bros., Shapiro outlined an aggressive plan that included a hefty increase in marketing dollars -- from $59 million in 2006 to more than $84 million for 2007.

That plan included a doubling of the amount of funds spent on domestic television and outdoor media.

Despite Shapiro's spirited efforts and the increased ad spending, Six Flags' experienced only a slight bump in attendance last year. The turnstile count was 24.8 million in 2006 and 24.9 million in 2007.

For the nine months ended Sept. 30, 2007, Six Flags reported a net loss of $142.7 million on revenues of $860.6 million.

Full financial results for 2007 were not yet available at press time.

What is clear at this time is that Six Flags stock price continues to fall.

What is clear at this time is that Six Flags stock price continues to fall.

The 52-week high for Six Flags stock was $6.80 per share. At press time it had dropped to $1.55 per share -- in a market that has turned bear overall in recent weeks.

Shapiro remains upbeat. He says Six Flags will continue to invest in its parks. And he notes that there were some fourth-quarter 2007 indicators -- modest gains in attendance and revenue and an increase in season pass sales versus the last quarter of 2006 -- that have helped create some reason for Six Flags management to remain optimistic.

"We're looking forward to building on this momentum in 2008," Shapiro says.

Says Speigel about Six Flags' future: "I don't know where this goes from here. But they've got to make some cuts and sell some properties."

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