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Struggling SeaWorld reels in theme park vet to fill CEO vacancy

Some aquariums scaling back amid controversySome aquariums scaling back amid controversy

SeaWorld Entertainment announced its new CEO Thursday, three months after the struggling theme park operator said it would dump its former chief executive following years of declining attendance, weak earnings, and negative press.

The company has hired Joel Manby to take over from interim CEO David D’Allesandro, who took that role after Jim Atchison stepped down earlier this year. Manby previously served as the president and CEO of Herschend Enterprises, the country’s largest family-owned theme park operator and the owner of such attractions as Dollywood and Silver Dollar City as well as famed exhibition basketball team the Harlem Globetrotters. Manby will take over as CEO starting April 7, at which point D’Alessandro will stay on as SeaWorld’s chairman.

Atchison left SeaWorld (SEAS) after five years as CEO following a string of disappointing quarterly financial results and the lingering publicity disaster that stemmed from the anti-SeaWorld documentary Blackfish. The film, which was released in 2013 and focused on the conditions of SeaWorld’s signature killer whales, help stoked the controversy over captive marine mammals and led to increased criticism from animal rights groups. Last summer, the company announced it would build bigger enclosures to house the orcas.

(Atchison didn’t leave empty-handed, though, as the former executive received about $2.6 million in severance pay, according to a company proxy statement.)

Now, Manby is tasked with taking over a company that has seen its stock sink more than 40% over the past year. Chairman D’Allesandro said Thursday he is confident that Manby, who also spent time in the auto industry as CEO of Saab Automobile USA, is the right person to turn SeaWorld around.

“Even in the most challenging business environments, Joel has consistently enhanced the performance of the companies he has led for customers, investors and employees alike,” D’Allesandro said in a statement. “He has the experience and qualifications to lead our Company into the future.”

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