Circus Roncalli Not Just Clowning Around

German circus Roncalli thrills viewers with artistry and entertainment, but what goes on behind the scenes has lessons for the business world.
Bernhard Paul keeps all the strands of the business together though it is a balancing act.

 

An unexpected stream of water forces Patrick Philadelphia to abandon his desk for the circus tent.

He works for Germany’s Circus Roncalli as operations manager and ringmaster and was busy calculating the cost of transporting the animals, team and equipment from Ludwigsburg in southern Germany to Linz in Austria. But when he rushes outside, he is soaked in seconds, and quickly he forgets the spreadsheet.

Rain or shine, the show must go on – in an hour. Mr. Philadelphia decides to dig a ditch and spread out straw so audience members don’t get their feet wet. “Surprises are an everyday thing for us – not just in the ring,” he said.

Circus Roncalli, a German company known around the world, is visiting Düsseldorf for a two-week stint this summer. At the front of the house, it's all thrills, but behind the scenes, there are a couple of spills.

But though soaked to the skin, Mr. Philadelphia is impressively calm, one of the many characteristics on show at the circus that business executives would do well to imitate.

It's a little easier for Mr. Philadelphia, who grew up in circus circles. But although his father was a horse trainer for the Krone circus, Mr. Philadelphia didn't feel like a performer. The questions that grabbed him were more along the lines of, where's the safety net, who organizes the sand for the circus ring and how to ship ticket booths from A to B.

So it's Mr. Philadelphia's job to make sure everything at Roncalli runs smoothly. He joined 20 years ago so he has some practice with both the everyday job and the extra surprises that come on top.

What drew him was the organization, operation and routine. There, behind the curtains, it's just as at any other business: the lion’s share of the work takes place behind the scenes. And, like at any company, incredible feats of acrobatics won't help with an image in ruins.

Logistics is a big part of his job: When the circus moves from one place to the next, he keeps costs low, shipping the Roncalli troupe by train. One trip can cost up to €80,000 ($89,116). “We have everything tightly organized,” he says. “It won’t work any other way because security and punctuality take priority.”

Mr. Philadelphia’s team has 25 people on site including maintenance employees, electricians and laundry workers. Insurance, training, safety technology and controls cost six-digit sums every year.

Somebody else a few yards down from Mr. Philadelphia’s office wagon is thinking about sums too. Lili Paul slams her math book shut and gives a sigh of satisfaction. “Vacation at last!” she says. The 18-year-old is the youngest daughter of Bernhard Paul, Roncalli’s co-founder and boss who is taking the circus on its jubilee tour celebrating its 40th anniversary.

 

Vivi Paul does math in the morning and performs as an acrobat in the afternoons.

 

The children of employees who travel with the circus are required to acquire an academic education. So each day, Ms. Paul studies from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., and then she trains for her acrobatic act. At 2:30 p.m., she dresses up and goes to makeup. She features in two performances daily, one a solo number as a contortionist. In the evenings after the show, she studies until 8 p.m. Monday is her free day, when both the circus tent and school wagon are closed. She graduates high school next year, and then she’ll think about what she wants to study in college.

As she mentally switches from math to gymnastics, other employees at the circus café are admiring a gigantic truck, its side panels emblazoned with a new Roncalli design. “Wow, our new loader!” says Dorothee Kipp, 31.

She is a Roncalli headhunter, though her preferred title is treasure hunter. She has been with the circus for three years and searches out new talent worldwide. Last year, Ms. Kipp was on the road in Moscow and Cuba to find artists for the jubilee program. She takes a look at the competition as well as people in variety shows, and checks out festivals and street performers.

She's chatting with Fulgenci Mestres Bertran, known as Gensi. He is the circus’ White Clown whose face adorns all Roncalli posters. Looking at the new truck, with its clowns, artists, horses and balloons, she says, "We live in a dream world. We're constantly surrounded by magic, happiness and enchantment.”

 

Originally from Barcelona, Fulgenci Mestres Bertran or Gensi for short, works as a clown at Roncalli.

 

Ms. Kipp lives with the circus artists and employees in the Roncalli village behind the tent. She doesn’t often feel the pull of a world which doesn’t smell of popcorn and where red carpets don’t roll out.

It's her job to maintain the Roncalli tradition while attracting younger audiences. This year, the circus' program included a street beat-box artist to appeal to youngsters. But, in her search for new acts and fresh inspiration, Ms. Kipp says, “it’s tremendously important that the artists also fit in with our family culture. After all, we live here together in extremely close quarters.” For now, 90 people from 22 countries work at Roncalli, a degree of diversity many companies can only dream of.

Just like every family enterprise, Roncalli has employees who have been there a long time, like Gensi, in his twelfth season. For a circus artist, that's an eternity. “This is the best circus in Europe for clowns,” he says. "Anyone you see here is really good.” Often, performers start out in the variety show as a sort of tryout for both sides. If everything works out, the artist is offered a contract. Roncalli boss Mr. Paul always makes the final decision.

There's little talk of pay scales or strikes here, where what counts is performance, experience, reputation and loyalty. Roncalli is known for paying well, and artists often stay longer than one season. Some employees have been with Roncalli for more than 20 years and the bandleader has worked at the circus for 38 years.

 

Bernhard Paul leads Roncalli and runs additional activities to fund the main business.

 

It's all down to Mr. Paul, in his circus wagon surrounded by mirrors and a gold- and red-painted ceiling. Between phone calls and e-mails, he's organizing a gala in Vienna to mark the company anniversary.

He's planned the event schedule. “It’s important to always surprise,” he says, in a way describing his business model and main selling point.

Mr. Paul wants to immerse the audience in a world of magic, to delight them, amaze them, make them laugh like children. That’s Roncalli’s recipe for success, he says.

Mr. Paul was born in 1947 in Austria and saw a circus clown for the first time as a 6-year-old. He knew immediately: That’s what I want to do. Still, he first studied graphic arts, art and architecture. But his calling to the circus burned fiercely and in 1975, he quit his well-paying job as an art director at a news magazine and became Zippo the Clown.

Later, Mr. Paul founded Circus Roncalli with performance artist André Heller though later, the two split up and Mr. Paul has been running Roncalli alone since 1980.

His role model is Charlie Chaplin. “He manages to make intellectuals and little kids laugh at the same time,” he says.

That formula seems to work at Roncalli – the circus sold out almost every show during the European soccer championship and even when the German soccer squad was playing. Within the space of three weeks, 50,000 people attended Roncalli performances. The circus contributed €8.3 million to Circus Roncalli GmbH’s €17.8 million in sales in 2015.

Today, Mr. Paul is focused on Vienna, where the next day he will be discussing on site the upcoming guest appearance. As much as he likes to philosophize about magic and surprises, he's first and foremost a businessman. His business is efficient: after all, bills must be paid and the tax office satisfied.

Circuses, unlike some other cultural institutions in Germany, get no government assistance, and circuses pay regular business taxes. This practice dates back to the Third Reich, when Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels decided to exclude circuses from officially-recognized culture. According to the Nazis, too many Jews and Gypsies worked in circuses.

Like many a CEO, Mr. Paul participates in one telephone conference call after another. Roncalli’s new tour, the Christmas market in Hamburg and the Christmas circus in Berlin have to be planned, and he’s negotiating with Cologne about construction of a circus museum.

You have to throw money out the window so it can come back in the door again. Bernhard Paul, Boss, Circus Roncalli

“So that we can keep the tradition, the atmosphere and the fascination of our traveling circus at such a high level, we have other activities to be able to finance it,” Mr. Paul says.

The Apollo Varieté theater in Düsseldorf is part of that. Last year, Roncalli invested €400,000 there in new lighting.

Mr. Paul says, “I am basically of the opinion that you have to throw money out the window so it can come back in the door again. With that attitude, I have managed to be very successful for 40 years.”

Mr. Paul does a lot of things differently than the competition. For example, he is cautious about partnerships with sponsors. Even so, Roncalli is introducing a new product for Ültje, a well-known producer of snack products such as potato chips and nuts, and also is cooperating with manufacturer LMC in testing its trailers. Roncalli employees live in them. “As long as it fits in with us and our brand, it’s good for us,” Mr. Paul says of such arrangements.

At the circus, it’s 3 p.m. and people are entering for the day’s first show. Circus music fills the air. Clowns and jugglers are performing tricks. Souvenir toys are being sold.

At Roncalli, getting ready for a night under the big top.

 

Operations manager Mr. Philadelphia is in front of the entrance, wearing his red ringmaster’s tailcoat, a clutching a walkie-talkie. It has stayed dry inside, so the audience won’t notice anything about the downpour. In front of the tent, a long line has formed in the Rheinpark. Some people look stressed and impatient. But soon Mr. Philadelphia and his team will direct the 1,500 people to their seats.

Audience members first push their way through the front tent where popcorn and cotton candy are for sale. Then past the souvenir stand. They’ll later take their circus memories home with them on cell-phone cases, umbrellas and mouse pads. The latest highlight is the Roncalli set from Playmobil.

“My children used to play with the Playmobil circus,” Mr. Paul says. “My son used to cut out Roncalli’s logo and paste it on it.”

At 3:30 p.m. on the dot, the lights go up. Mr. Philadelphia is standing in the ring, jokingly pointing out one of the most important rules: “Of course, you are allowed to smoke, but please not here in the tent.”

Then it gets dark, a dreamy melody starts up and a spotlight shines on the face of the Gensi the White Clown.

“Leave your worries outside and come into our hearts. Become a child. Become a clown,” he says.

Performers rush in, perform gymnastics on bars and ropes and do tricks on roller-skates. The audience ooohs and aaahs, cheers and claps, everyday lives forgotten.

Roncalli's spell is casts and as the show unfolds, the circus’ main selling point – surprise – performs its magic.

 

Vera Münch is a journalist writing for WirtschaftsWoche, a German news weekly and sister publication to Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact the author: [email protected]