Foolish companies, believing “the customer is always right,” can harm themselves, their employees and their customers. Worse, this misunderstood maxim can undermine naïve buyers and sellers of businesses and their sources of financing.

The customer is NOT always right!

Here is what can happen with the foolhardy proclamation: The customer is always right.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey folding its tent after 146 years, 1/16/17, USA TODAY.

According to the circus’ website, owner and circus master Kenneth Feld, announces: “I have made the difficult business decision that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey ® will hold its final performances in May of this year.”

Feld also states on the website, “We learned from the circus, and applied those learnings to our other productions.”

(Comments from readers of this webpage are near the bottom of this webpage.)

What Feld’s company learned remains to be proven.

Meanwhile, let’s look at what went wrong, why and what the company could have done about it.

What Went Wrong

  1. The Feld family bought the circus in 1967.
  2. Too many people were disgusted with the circus thanks to news stories and other things targeting the circus by activists who say capturing and exploiting / forcing animals to perform is cruel and unnecessary. (Some California cities prohibited the use of bull hooks by elephant trainers and handlers.)
  3. Bye-bye elephants, May of 2016. It was the one thing that initially drew millions to the show, the animals, according a reporter’s interview of company management.
  4. Declining attendance.
  5. High operating costs, including transportation expenses.
  6. Costly court battles.
  7. Shifting public sensitivities. Some say people are better-educated; they recognize and won’t tolerate suffering or profiteering at the expense of animals or people.
  8. Evolving preferences of customers. Animal circuses lost relevancy. (Cirque du Soleil, without animals, thrives.)
  9. Shorter attention spans. “Try getting a 3- or 4-year-old today to sit for 12 minutes,” Feld is reported as saying.
  10. Misguided, ignorant or complacent management.


What comes around turns around. This story illustrates the law of cause and effect.

Part (and maybe all) of the blame is placed upon Kenneth Feld and his staff.

The kiss of death: Believing the customer is always right . . .

Ringling Bros. And Barnum & Bailey Circus Bros.  to Close After 146-Year Run, Owner Says, as reported in the January 15, 2017 Palm Beach Post:

  • “We know now that one of the major reasons people came to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Bros. was getting to see elephants,” Feld said. “We stand by that decision. We know it was the right decision. This was what audiences wanted to see and it definitely played a major role.”
  • “The competitor in many ways is time.”

What the Owner and Company Could Have Done About It

  1. The Feld family shouldn’t have bought the circus. They not only lost their company, but the tarnishing of the company also casts a dark cloud over the owners and management.
  2. Too bad Feld’s company did not put to use the lessons, as they arose over the decades, as to what Fled writes, as of January 16, 2017, on the homepage of the circus’ website: “We learned from the circus, and applied those learnings to our other productions.”
  3. This acknowledgment is too little and too late: “The competitor in many ways is time.”
  4. They should have hired savvy advisors, and then deployed the recommendations, before and after the acquisition.
  5. They could have sold it to a Greater Fool, years ago when insightful people could see the writing on the wall.
  6. They didn’t do what is proven to work: Emulate the most successful producers of entertainment, especially Cirque du Soleil. After all, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, already had the audience which was theirs to lose.
  7. They could have created and marketed product merchandising tie-ins and product placements in cartoons, movies, television, video games and the internet, aimed at children and to show adults (parents) a wholesome 21st century adaptation of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.
  8. They could have re-positioned it. “In an era of Pokemon Go, online role-playing games and You-Tube celebrities, the “Greatest Show on Earth” doesn’t seem so great,” writes Tamara Lush, Associated Press, Parent firm’s CEO: 146-year institution has lost relevancy.

If you can’t see how you will get out of it don’t get into it!

  • Business Buyer Advocates ® have advised this since the 1970s.

“There’s a sucker born every minute!”

  • P. T. Barnum

**** Credit for much of what you read on this webpage goes to the news media reports about the circus going out of business.

You can help companies (especially their buyers and sellers) avoid being a Greater Fool!

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Responses from Readers

Below are comments from a few people about my story concerning the soon-to-be-defunct circus. BTW, my story is about the business issues. I’m not taking a stand concerning the morality of showcasing circus animals, which is important to people with highly divergent opinions. Let’s learn from the business lessons so what happened to the circus doesn’t happen to our companies.

Great article – I enjoyed reading it. I took my two girls to the circus years ago. I asked my daughter, (age 10 at the time) so what’d ya think? She said, “pretty lame”. That really summed it up. That was before the internet and smart phones. So much could have been done with the brand. It didn’t need a way out, it needed a spirit like PT Barnum, something bold that could stimulate all of our senses. Cirque shows are not created by a magician or wizard – they are simplistic really. The real sale is made the moment the show starts and it continues to the finale! Cirque shows simply keep you engaged with color, music, acrobatic art, surprise, and humor. Your eyes and ears are never allowed an opportunity to disengage. You brought up points I had never thought of, especially in regard to the elephants. Remember the Roy Horn tiger attack in Vegas? Really, it doesn’t matter if it’s sharks, tigers, dolphins or elephants, sooner or later you get bit. I agree with you, they could have taken the brand to places the way Disney did in their own way. Sorry I got a little wordy. I live in Vegas, but prior to and most of my life I’ve been in the entertainment, event and marketing world. Two things I’ve never done: rest or work. Thanks.

Excellent analysis Ted.

Business has to grow and change with the times, they didn’t.

Seeking wise counsel would have been great advice to them. It’s unfortunate so many companies today try to run and manage based on their rear view mirror. Who knows, maybe Ashe or Pikachu riding in on a spaceship would have helped but maybe not; either way it would have been better than staying on course towards the impending iceberg. Disruption is all around us; maybe they should have talked to a good futurist.  We use Jared Nichols, MSF, I just got finished rereading his book on Rethinking Your Next Quarter Of A Century.  Great article, Ted, like always.

“This was what audiences wanted to see” says failing owner (Kenneth Feld). But is it right? Some people like dog fights, but is it right? Businesses that serve consumers are most likely to adhere to “The Customer IS Always Right.” But professional advisors know that is not true. The customer is NOT always right. For example, most people who contact their lawyer, accountant or business consultant do so after something goes wrong. Typically the client’s diagnosis of their problem is wrong. And that is when the advisor makes the big difference.

A very sad story. I saw them about 50 years ago when they came to Toronto. A thrill I cherish for life.

What killed the circus we all loved and grew up with was the same people who are destroying Sea World…..animal activists. As you stated the primary draw for the circus was the elephants and the primary draw for Sea World was SHAMU. It’s too bad a lot of today’s young children will not see these beloved animals because of these activist minorities.

Good riddance to the circus!

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