Michael Conaghan may have left the lifeguard stands and starting blocks behind him a long time ago, but he is making more waves in the aquatics industry than ever.
Now senior vice president at the Marshall Group, a Minneapolis-based real estate investment banking company, he was one of the first financiers to validate — and commit dollars to — the indoor waterpark resort business model. That model has since caught fire, with Conaghan financing nearly $1 billion in the past eight years.
Projects include Key Lime Cove, a $140 million project in Gurnie, Ill.; the Grand Mound, Wash., Great Wolf Lodge property, another $140 million project; Fort Rapids, a $40 million indoor waterpark hotel in Columbus, Ohio; and Focus Hospitality’s two Splash Universe properties located in Dundee, Mich., and Shipshewanna, Ind. As of press time, the firm also is in the process of providing financing for another $140 million Great Wolf Lodge located in Concord, N.C.
It’s a far cry from those early days, when most banks were jittery about waterpark resorts. “Getting those first investors to jump in was a challenge early on, but now, the proof is in the pudding,” Conaghan says.
Of course, he has had an advantage over his peers. Prior to joining the Marshall Group, he was the director of finance for Great Wolf Resorts, where Conaghan was responsible for raising all the equity and debt for the firm’s first seven indoor waterpark resort properties and helping to take the company public.
He says his experience working for a waterpark resort developer gave him an edge then and now. “I’m able to see both sides — the borrower perspective and the lender perspective — and find a fair middle ground,” he says.