10 Feb 2014
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King of His Castle

George Appling turned an "enduring passion" for Renaissance Fairs into a successful business owning one.
Re: David Moss
by Jill Radsken

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George Appling (MBA 1998) has become king of his castle.

The Texas native turned an "enduring passion" for Renaissance fairs into a successful business owning one.

"What sets our fair apart is that we didn't build it to make money first. We built it because we loved it, first, and to make money, second, " he says.

Located in Austin, Texas, Sherwood Forest Faire—Appling's recreation of a 16th-century medieval village—has earned great success in its first four years. Renaissance magazine dubbed Sherwood the Best New Festival three years in a row, from 2010 to 2012, but Appling is especially proud of the numbers inside the fairgrounds. About 71,000 guests attended the 17-day festival last year.

"We are wholeheartedly involved, the community feels that, and the enthusiasm is contagious," he says.

Appling's path to Sherwood—and to his acting role of Richard the Lionhearted in fair performances—was a circuitous one. He discovered the "Ren" circuit as a teenager, visiting his first fair on a field trip in junior high school. In 30 years, he has never missed a season. "I thought, 'I finally found my place in the world. This is where I belong,'" he says.

But Appling considered the Renaissance fair world to be pleasure, not business. Instead, he turned his ambition toward a business degree at Harvard. Among his favorite classes were David Moss's Business, Government, and the International Economy (BGIE) unit, and Nancy F. Koehn's history of business class highlighting captains of industry such as Andrew Carnegie. "They were interesting stories of integrity that stayed with me," he says.

After graduating, Appling spent several years at McKinsey & Company, then took a job at Seimens. In 2006, he began at Bright Star as COO, but the travel-intensive job at the cell phone distributor took its toll on his personal life. "It's a 50-country job. I was leaving the country 50 weeks a year," he recalls.

He and his husband, Brian O'Leary, had just welcomed their first child in April 2008 when Appling cut back to part time and then made the move to the more family-friendly world of consulting. The move coincided with a promise Appling made to himself as he approached midlife. "I just couldn't let go of this idea that, once I hit 40, I wanted to make sure I was spending my time on something I loved."

In that spirit, he and business partner Eric Todd, a longtime Renaissance fair vendor, began in 2009 to formulate a business plan to open a fair in Austin. Less than a year later, Sherwood Forest opened, and ancillary businesses—a summer camp, a sword and armor retailer called Eternal Arms, a Celtic music festival, and a line of fermented honey wine called Thorin's Viking Mead—soon followed. "It's crazy and exciting," says Appling.

Appling has been able to maintain work/life balance with his current job as president and CEO of Personal Communications Devices, a wireless accessories manufacturer and distributor that did $1.6 billion in revenue last year. Still, he hopes in the near future to focus full time on the Renaissance empire he has built and is intent on expanding.

"I get to apply my business skills to the building of the company, but my passion for it hasn't diminished at all," he says. "What I love to do most is to go to the fair."

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Class of MBA 1998, Section F
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