If we are parsing SeaWorld’s news release correctly, its chief executive, Joel Manby, has decided to step down after the company made “substantial progress in enhancing the strategic positioning” of its “mission-driven brand,” to prepare for “its next phase of intensified focus on execution and growth.”
SeaWorld can only hope that its next phase of execution and growth includes fewer spying scandals, criminal investigations and multimillion-dollar losses than Manby presided over.
And fewer homicidal killer whales than the phase before that.
Manby took over SeaWorld in 2015 — more than a year after the documentary “Blackfish” brought public attention to Tilikum, an orca at the chain’s Orlando park that had been linked to three deaths over the years, including that of a trainer. The film accused the park of driving the whale “psychotic” in captivity.
“In the annals of documentary work, it’s difficult to come up with another movie that has so damaged a giant corporation,” Terrence McCoy wrote for The Washington Post, noting that the once-popular chain’s attendance and share prices collapsed after “Blackfish” inspired boycotts.
Manby promised to end that.
“We start everything by listening to our guests and evolving our shows,” he told investors at the end of 2015, as he announced that SeaWorld would stop putting on killer whale shows at its San Diego park in an attempt to stop the protests.
It didn’t work. California banned killer whale breeding altogether the previous month, Lindsey Bever wrote for The Post. During the next earnings call, in early 2016, Manby admitted to investors that SeaWorld employees had been posing as activists to spy on animal rights groups that were still targeting it.
The confession validated accusations from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, whose spokeswoman had earlier accused the company of “trying to incite confrontational and illegal actions against SeaWorld and distract from SeaWorld’s own wrongdoing.”
Manby told investors that SeaWorld’s spies had been merely trying to keep the parks safe from activists. But he promised to end the practice, so as to “align with our core values and ethical standards.”
The next year, Tilikum died. The whale was older than most captive whales lived to be, but his obituaries only served to remind people of the failed movement to free him — not to mention a string of whale deaths at SeaWorld’s San Antonio park two years prior.
Attendance at SeaWorld’s parks continued to fall, and the company’s stocks hit an all-time low near the end of 2017, when the Department of Justice revealed a criminal investigation into claims that it had deceived investors about how damaging it expected “Blackfish” would be.
Manby’s SeaWorld kept trying to move past its problems — announcing a new Electric Eel roller coaster in San Diego, for example, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported — but it never really managed, and it kept running into new ones.
SeaWorld announced a quarterly loss of more than $20 million Tuesday and said its parks operations officer, John Reilly, will become interim chief executive while it looks for someone to permanently replace Manby.
The company tried to sound positive. “Joel truly is an inspirational leader. He has big vision and big ideas,” the board chairman told investors Tuesday, the Union-Tribune reported.
But Manby’s inspirational leadership of SeaWorld would be ending, effective immediately.
“He feels there is significant bench strength and it is time to give them the opportunity to exert their leadership,” the chairman said. “He would not do so in an environment in which the business was confronted with adversity.”
So it must not be.