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Published: Friday, 7/8/2011

Cedar Fair's new leader says he's in for long haul

Ex-Disney executive to take helm of parks

BY SHEENA HARRISON
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
New Cedar Fair president Matt Ouimet. New Cedar Fair president Matt Ouimet.
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HURON, Ohio -- Matt Ouimet, set to become chief executive of Cedar Fair LP next year, says he's committed to remaining at the company's helm for "the rest of my career."

"This is what I enjoy doing," said Mr. Ouimet, a former Disney executive who was chosen last month to lead the Sandusky amusement park operator.

Mr. Ouimet made his remarks Thursday after Cedar Fair's annual shareholder meeting, held at the Cedar Point Center at Bowling Green State University's Firelands College in Huron, just east of Sandusky. About 75 to 100 shareholders attended the hour-long meeting.

Investors also bid farewell to Chief Executive Officer Dick Kinzel, who plans to retire in January after 25 years with the company.

During the meeting, Chairman C. Thomas Harvie praised Mr. Kinzel for overseeing $1.5 billion in dividends paid by the amusement park operator over his quarter century of service.

Mr. Kinzel said the dividends were his proudest achievement, noting that the company plans to pay a distribution of $1 per share this year and up to $2 per share by 2013.

"This demonstrates distributions are, and always have been, among the highest priorities of the company and the board, along with making strategic investments to grow business and continue to reduce our debt," Mr. Kinzel said.

After the shareholders meeting, Mr. Ouimet noted similarities between Cedar Fair and the Walt Disney Co., where he spent 17 years, including a stint as manager of its venerable Disneyland park and resort.

The two chains share similarities in that both strive for quality, he said.

Asked if he had changes in mind for next year after he takes over for Mr. Kinzel, the new president said that any changes that Cedar Fair makes will be based on customers' tastes and preferences.

Mr. Ouimet said he intends to preserve the park experience that Cedar Fair customers cherish and remember, while also adding new attractions that will entice a younger generation of customers to visit the company's 11 amusement parks and seven water parks.

Cedar Fair shareholders expressed support and frustration with Q Investments, a pair of hedge funds headquartered in Fort Worth that is Cedar Fair's largest investor. The firm, which has been critical of Mr. Kinzel and Cedar Fair's leadership, has pushed for numerous changes in Cedar Fair's operations, typically through lawsuits and special shareholder meetings.

Shareholder Charles Knight of Fostoria, who owns Camp Sandusky, said the fund's strategies could hurt long-term Cedar Fair investors, and told Q Investments to "go away."

"We all understand that they buy low and they're going to leave us," Mr. Knight said. "They're going to sell high and they're going to move on."

However, John Bossart of Sandusky credited Q Investments with successfully pushing for changes at Cedar Fair.

That includes defeating a proposed deal last year to sell Cedar Fair to Apollo Global Management LLC of New York City, splitting the company's chairman and CEO roles into two positions, and pushing for higher dividends.

"If it weren't for Q4 Funding, we would be sold to Apollo group for 11 bucks a share," Mr. Bossart said. "We would not join in the appreciation of what has happened to this stock."

Since the involvement of Q Investments, whose fund names are Q4 Funding and Q Funding III, Cedar Fair's stock price has risen from $11.60 a share to over $21 a share. Thursday, its stock rose 82 cents to close at $21.76 a share on the New York Stock Exchange.

Mr. Kinzel told investors that Cedar Fair is working to maintain a "strong, viable company" in spite of pressures it is facing from Q Investments.

"What this board is dedicated to do is when they do leave they don't leave the rest of us with a bunch of ashes we have to clean up," Mr. Kinzel said.

In the only significant business conducted at the meeting, shareholders elected Gina France, president and CEO of France Strategic Partners LLC, to the Cedar Fair board. Shareholders also approved nonbinding proposals that would allow Cedar Fair investors to hold annual advisory votes on the company's executive compensation.

Contact Sheena Harrison at: sharrison@theblade.com or 419-724-6103.



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