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SeaWorld CEO steps down amid continuing fallout from 'Blackfish' documentary

SeaWorld CEO steps down amid continuing fallout from 'Blackfish' documentary
The chief executive of SeaWorld Orlando's parent company is leaving the theme-park company. (Joe Burbank / TNS)

SeaWorld Entertainment Chief Executive Joel Manby is stepping down after failing to deliver a rebound in sliding attendance and revenues that have dogged the company years after the release of the anti-animal captivity film "Blackfish."

The Tuesday morning announcement came on the same day as the release of fourth-quarter earnings, which, in a replay of past quarterly reports, revealed a continued slump in revenues and a nearly 3% drop in attendance.

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Taking Manby's place as interim chief executive will be John T. Reilly, 49, the company's chief operations officer who previously had been president of SeaWorld San Diego. He will be getting a $30,000 increase in pay, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

"The board agreed that this transition plan is the right approach to advance the company's progress and create value for all our important stakeholders," said Donald Robinson, SeaWorld's lead independent director.

It is not clear whether it was Manby's decision alone to leave the company or if it was driven more by the board of directors.

SeaWorld Chairman Yoshikazu Maruyama, when asked in an earnings call Tuesday morning about the reason for Manby's departure, offered high praise for the longtime theme park executive.

"Joel truly is an inspirational leader. He has big vision and big ideas," said Maruyama, who heads the American operation for Zhonghong Group, the Chinese company that last year purchased investment firm Blackstone Group's 21% stake in SeaWorld.

"I think he believes he has trained and mentored a large group of management members here. He feels there is significant bench strength and it is time to give them the opportunity to exert their leadership. He would not do so in an environment in which the business was confronted with adversity," Maruyama said.

SeaWorld spokesman Travis Claytor said that the company would not be making Manby or Reilly available for interviews on Tuesday.

Manby, who joined the Orlando, Fla.-based company three years ago, agreed that "this is the right time to identify a new CEO as the company enters its next phase of intensified focus on execution and growth," the company said in its Tuesday news release.

Despite continued marketing campaigns to burnish the company's image and a stunning announcement two years ago that SeaWorld would end the captive breeding of its killer whales, the company has been unable to show positive results.

In Tuesday's earnings announcement, SeaWorld reported that attendance fell nearly 3% during the final quarter of 2017 and revenues were down almost 1% compared with the same period a year earlier. For all of 2017, 1.2 million fewer people visited SeaWorld's 12 parks, a decline of 5.5%, the company reported.

Seeking to put a positive spin on its financial results, SeaWorld noted that trends so far this year are positive when compared to last year, with increases in season pass sales and total attendance, "led by significant increases in both metrics at SeaWorld San Diego."

It also noted that despite the attendance decline during the quarter, revenue per visitor rose 2% to $62.32 owing to higher ticket prices and spending within the parks.

While the company does not break out results for each of its parks, lease payments made by SeaWorld San Diego to the city of San Diego for its Mission Bay site offer a window into financial performance because they are tied to a percentage of the park's gross revenues.

Lease revenues to San Diego in 2017 totaled more than $10.5 million, about $645,400 less than a year earlier. That is also less than 2015.

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SeaWorld has sought to revive performance by continuing to introduce new rides and attractions and boasts that it is offering up "one of the best new product lineups in the company's history with 15 new rides." In San Diego this year, the park will debut its Electric Eel roller coaster, which is advertised as its tallest and fastest coaster yet.

Beyond its financial woes, SeaWorld is being sued by investors who accuse the theme park company of failing to acknowledge the fallout from "Blackfish." It also is being investigated by the Department of Justice and the SEC, which are focusing on executives' disclosure and public statements about the impact of the 2013 documentary and trading in the company's securities.

SeaWorld's board said Tuesday it has hired an executive search firm to help it find a successor to Manby. According to an SEC filing, Manby will be entitled to severance pay.

Weisberg writes for The San Diego Union-Tribune

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