Kyle Hackel had already been running The Big E in Gaffney for about eight months when he saw a billboard advertising Clemson’s MBA in Entrepreneurship & Innovation program. He had already found some success with Big E, a one-stop entertainment complex that houses an eight-screen movie theater, a 16-lane bowling alley, laser tag, a mini golf course and more, but Hackel, an ex-Marine, immediately felt the program would be a good next step for him and his career.
“I’d always wanted a graduate degree,” he says, “and I was really attracted by the fact that it was local.”
Hackel couldn’t have known it at the time, but he was taking the first steps on a path that would eventually lead to The Big E being named Business Of The Year by the Cherokee County Chamber Of Commerce. Hackel and his wife Jessica, co-owners of The Big E, accepted the award at a banquet earlier this year.
“We’d been nominated once before,” Hackel says, “But winning was really meaningful because we’re a small, individually owned business, even though we service around 400,000 customers a year. So it’s nice to be recognized up against some national companies that are in this region and in our county.”
Back in 2014 when Hackel originally began pursuing his MBA, he tried to balance his classes with working full-time at The Big E, and that eventually proved to be too much.
“I was going to class all day long and going to the business in the afternoons, in the evenings and on weekends,” he says. “I was basically running the business from my cellphone on breaks in between classes, and I did that for probably three or four months.”
Something had to give, but luckily there was a part-time program that Hackel was able to move into and continue his studies.
“I went to Dr. (Greg) Pickett (the director of MBA programs and associate dean of the College of Business) and told him I made a mistake, and I should not be in the full-time program and running a business that’s open 365 days a year,” Hackel says with a laugh. “Luckily they were really accommodating and rolled me right over into the part-time program, and that was way more my speed and I was still able to get a lot out of it.”
What Hackel got out of it can be put both in general and specific terms. Generally speaking, just being around the other students in the program was beneficial.
“Being around an academic, business setting is kind of an intangible asset,” he says. “If you’re serious about improving yourself in that area, being around a bunch of motivated and career-driven individuals who are studying business like yourself was one of my favorite parts about it. I miss that a lot, actually.”
But specifically, the sales techniques he learned from Dr. Pickett and instructor David Hooker were invaluable, not just because Hackel was selling movie tickets or rounds of mini-golf, but because he was selling himself.
“There was a sales class , and it was one of my favorite, most realistic classes,” he says. “At some point in your career, you’re going to have to sell your product one way or another, and these were very real, tangible skills that we studied.”
Hackel had a somewhat daunting sales task in front of him during those first months that The Big E was open.
“One challenge initially was that we’d purchased a distressed property,” he says. “When we bought the property it was just a bowling alley and a movie theater, and it had failed a bunch of times. It had a really bad reputation as kind of an eyesore, so the biggest task was to prove that we weren’t the same as everyone else. And that we were going to invest in the property AND the community. Perception was the most important thing we had to deal with right out of the gate.”
Altering the perception of The Big E’s location involved more than a physical renovation and fun attractions. It involved an in-depth examination of their customer service strategy and their level of community involvement.
“I think you have to put policies and standards in place for the way your customers experience your business,” he says. “When the customers come in, they need to feel like there’s something different. And we try to be involved in the community in a variety of different ways, so people know that we’re invested.”
Jonna Turner, the Executive Director of the Cherokee County Chamber Of Commerce, says that The Big E’s efforts have not gone unnoticed by the Chamber’s members, hence their Business Of The Year award.
“Kyle and his family came to this close-knit family community and they were able to turn that entertainment center around,” Turner says. “But it’s not just that they’ve physically done renovations; they’ve gotten out into the community to build relationships in order to get folks to come to their facility. Kyle believes in the community, and that’s the best way to help businesses thrive. He wouldn’t have the success he’s had or qualified for this award if it wasn’t for what he does to stay engaged and involved with Cherokee County.”
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