HUTCHINSON – Moments after kissing Sparky the sea lion during the official kickoff of the 100th Kansas State Fair on Friday, general manager Denny Stoecklein starts striding toward his office, but he’s quickly stopped by a TV cameraman and a radio reporter wanting interviews.
Stoecklein amiably obliges and moments later again starts for the administration office but doesn’t make it three feet before the fair’s zip-line operators stop him to inquire about finding sleeping arrangements for some of their workers.
When Stoecklein finally makes it to his desk, he returns a legislator’s call on his office line while quieting his ringing cell phone and answering e-mails and a Facebook message from a fairgoer wondering when dollar day is.
This is 10 minutes out of Stoecklein’s 14-to-16 hour fair day.
“The variety of what you can deal with is really limitless,” Stoecklein said.
He’s part ticket master, safety czar, media celebrity – the list goes on.
“You’re running an entire city,” said Lori Mulch-Hart, the fair’s assistant director.
Stoecklein is mayor of that city, which is a 280-acre area with more than 70 buildings, 25 employees and an annual budget of $5 million. Ninety percent of that comes from the 10-day fair. About $500,000 comes from rentals at the fairgrounds and its buildings.
When Stoecklein, 44, joined the organization in 1995, his job was to oversee nonfarm events and get corporate sponsorships, which at the time were relatively new for fairs.
He became general manager in 2003, and Mulch-Hart says he’s been a trailblazer in much the same way longtime fair manager Bob Gottschalk was.
“Sometimes maybe the people in Hutchinson or in Kansas maybe don’t realize how … elevated he and the Kansas State Fair are in the national and international fair scene,” Mulch-Hart said.
Stoecklein is program chairman for the International Association of Fairs and Expositions annual convention in Las Vegas in November. The Kansas State Fair and the Kansas Fairs & Festivals Association are hosting a five-state fair conference in February.
“It’s such an institution,” Stoecklein said of the fair. He said it’s one of the few things that can appeal to three or four generations of a family with such diverse offerings as livestock shows, rock and country music performances, butter carving and duct tape design competitions.
“It’s one of those rare things, I think, anymore.”
Stoecklein’s lean 6-foot-2 figure – he’s down 50 pounds in the last year – can be seen biking the mile and a half between home and the fairgrounds each day. He takes longer rides evenings and weekends.
“That’s just good therapy.”
His job is a stressful one. In addition to the fair, the upcoming convention and conference, Stoecklein’s budget is due to the state in a month. Mulch-Hart, who has worked with Stoecklein for 14 years and known him longer than that, said he remains cool and tends to sit back and evaluate things.
“There’s absolutely no temper at all,” she said. “If he is upset or anything like that, you’d have to know him pretty well to know. I don’t think you’d pick up on it.”
Shelley Downs, a brand director with Greteman Group, works closely with Stoecklein and says the same thing.
“Everybody’s human, everybody gets frazzled,” Downs said, “but I don’t see that in him. … He’s not human.”
Downs said Stoecklein always seems to have the right thing to say.
“He just … epitomizes what a leader should be.”
So long, Hutch
As a Hutchinson native, Stoecklein was intimately familiar with the fair before ever working for it.
“I grew up just northeast of the fairgrounds a couple of blocks,” he said. “The fair was always a part of my life, and Mom and Dad made it something we would do as a family.”
As much as Stoecklein loved the fair, that didn’t translate to Hutchinson.
“One thing I knew, I couldn’t wait to leave Hutchinson, and I wasn’t coming back.”
Stoecklein attended Hutchinson Community College and then Kansas State University, where he was a business and marketing major. For a while during school, he worked for Dillons. Eventually, he went into the wholesale grocery business in Kansas City.
Then Stoecklein and a friend decided to return to Hutchinson and dabble, as Stoecklein puts it, in the insurance business. It didn’t work out, so Stoecklein took the fair job when it came open.
Today, as manager, he makes $106,000. At this time of year, if not the rest, he’s earning every penny.
Beginning in about mid-August, Stoecklein’s days start about 6 a.m. and end close to 8 p.m. A morning person, Stoecklein said the two hours before 8 a.m. are his most crucial for accomplishing things.
In the week leading up to the fair, his workday stretches closer to 9 p.m. daily. Now that the fair has started, it’s 10 p.m. to midnight, “which just sounds horrible, but your adrenaline is going.”
“You get so much energy off the people who are there,” Stoecklein said.
His most difficult day on the job was in 2004 when an employee died due to an accident at a stage, which is no longer in use, after the fair ended.
“No schooling, no experience prepares you for things like that.”
Weather is one of several things Stoecklein loses sleep over.
“It has the single-highest impact on attendance, and there’s absolutely nothing we can do.”
That doesn’t keep him from trying.
When a fair visitor felt the first raindrop Friday, Stoecklein quickly retorted, “No you didn’t.”
Stoecklein woke up at 4:30 a.m. that day, and there was no going back to sleep.
The fair is the culmination of more than a yearlong process. Even during the fair, plans are ongoing for the next one.
“Sometimes I liken it to a wedding,” Stoecklein said.
Except most people wouldn’t want to throw a wedding year after year.
Though he and his team are working almost every minute of the fair, Stoecklein can have fun, too.
“He’s a character,” said Warren Hardy, a friend who also emcees fair shows. “He likes shenanigans, too.”
Once, Stoecklein – who denies this – had Hardy’s motor home filled with balloons.
“It was so full of balloons, I couldn’t get through the door,” Hardy said. “That’s not to mention the little plastic spider rings that I’m still finding today.”
Brad Rayl, a fair board member who has known Stoecklein since 1995, said Stoecklein does a masterful job of overseeing things without micromanaging.
“His communication skills with the board (are) unbelievable,” Rayl said. He said Stoecklein also networks with other fairs “so we get the newest and the best and the brightest here.”
“It’s not a job to him. It’s his passion. If somebody would harm the state fair, he would take it personally and emotionally.”
Stoecklein said his charge is how to maintain tradition but evolve the fair to appeal to a younger demographic.
Greteman Group’s advertising and marketing is geared toward helping the fair do that.
“They recognize good ideas, and they’re kind of willing to go for something different,” said Sonia Greteman, president and creative director. “It would make some clients uncomfortable.”
Greteman said Stoecklein and his staff understand that bold ideas often are what get results.
“They, I think, like the ideas that stand out and are different.”
Stoecklein can be something of his own one-man marketing wing.
“Take some of these home with you,” he says while putting some fair leaflets into the hands of someone he just met.
He’s constantly selling the fair, and that salesmanship is paying off this week as happy fairgoers pour through the gates.
“That’s what you live for,” Stoecklein said. “It’s putting smiles on faces.”