Inside CEO Joel Manby’s fight to rescue the theme park company from the Blackfish controversy.
For years it has seemed as if things couldn’t possibly get worse for SeaWorld.
This is, after all, a company whose Job-like tale of woe begins back in 2010, on a gray February day at its flagship Florida park. There, following a “Dine With Shamu” show, a $30-per-plate affair during which guests lunch tank-side and killer whales do tricks, Shamu—actually an 11,800-pound, 29-year-old Orcinus orca named Tilikum, or “Tilly”—killed the trainer.
This grisly tragedy led to Occupational Safety and Health Administration proceedings (which SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment lost), several critical books, and most famously Blackfish, a chilling, 90-minute documentary—SeaWorld folks prefer the term “propaganda”—that implicates Tilly in two other deaths and suggests that his history of violence stems from a life confined to a pool.
The film debuted at Sundance a few months before SeaWorld’s April 2013 IPO, and it was aired, repeatedly, on CNN in the months after. (It was then made available on demand on Netflix.) It unsettled many Americans, who said so on social media and created a wide-open window of opportunity for SeaWorld’s nemesis, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). That group gamely leaped, wreaking havoc on the Internet and staging protests at parks, parades, and SeaWorld executives’ homes. Celebrities like Matt Damon, Willie Nelson, and Jessica Biel piled on. Longtime SeaWorld corporate partners walked away. (Southwest Airlines terminated its relationship after 26 years.) Attendance dropped. Politicians in California floated legislation that would put an end to orca breeding.
What Blackfish had done, to devastating effect, is portray one of the company’s core missions—the care and training of animals in captivity—through a lens that cast captivity itself as torture. Bewildered by an attack on practices they considered genuinely humane, the staff at SeaWorld fought back with a series of combative but ineffective public-relations campaigns (drawing hecklers more than changing minds). It stooped to sending security staff to spy on PETA. SeaWorld also got hacked, sued, and pummeled by the stock market. By December 2014, when CEO Jim Atchison, a company lifer who began his career as a ticket taker, announced his resignation, SeaWorld had become a place where many Americans would not be caught dead.
Enter the Love Doctor. Joel Manby was the well-liked chief of Herschend Family Entertainment (HFE)—a theme park company that owns properties such as Dollywood and Silver Dollar City in Branson, Mo.—before answering SeaWorld’s siren song and becoming its CEO in April 2015.
Manby was quasi-famous for a memorable 2010 appearance on CBS’s Undercover Boss and for his seven-point leadership guide, Love Works. The book, blurbed by Dolly Parton and the president of Chick-fil-A, espouses Christian values and calls for “unconditional love” in the workplace. And indeed, Manby got straight to healing: In his first 16 months on the job he shook up the managerial ranks, made nice with adversaries by vowing to end the park’s theatrical orca shows, and laid out his strategy to make SeaWorld a purpose- (rather than a porpoise-) driven company.
But if you’re looking for a feel-good turnaround story, you won’t find it here—at least not yet.
Even with those bold rebranding efforts, SeaWorld has continued to sink. You can add to its litany of troubles: Tropical Storm Colin, Zika, the bad Brazilian economy (which kept hundreds of thousands of visitors away), Brexit (which may do the same), a summer blockbuster (Finding Dory) with an anti-captivity bent, and the rotten luck of opening its latest, much-anticipated Orlando attraction on the saddest weekend in the city’s history—that of the horrific mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub.
Killer whales and trained-animal shows have been star attractions at SeaWorld’s theme parks, but controversy triggered by a whale trainer’s death in 2010 has dragged the company down.Photograph by Landon Nordeman for Fortune
SeaWorld’s stock has plunged 34% this year; its revenues for the first half of 2016 are $15 million off last year’s underwhelming levels. Analysts think SeaWorld could struggle to keep paying its hefty, shareholder-appeasing 6.5% dividend. Manby says he is full of ideas to save SeaWorld, but he recently confessed that right now he’s just feeling for the floor. “We haven’t proven that we’ve hit the absolute bottom,” he told analysts on an August earnings call.
The modern story of SeaWorld is a corporate failure of epic—even biblical—proportions. The tale of a once-beloved and iconic company that, when confronted by relentless travails, didn’t change or even register the world changing around it. Of a strong swimmer that found itself out of its depths and desperately paddling to shore—with a lifeguard in Manby who may or may not have the power to tow it to safety.
In the beginning, SeaWorld was supposed to be an underwater restaurant. Founded in 1964 by four UCLA frat brothers, it became a marine park when those guys obtained some sea lions. Over the decades the company evolved in a similarly haphazard fashion—an interesting side business or a tenderly run passion project for a series of unlikely owners including Harcourt Brace (a textbook publisher) and Anheuser-Busch (a beer company).
Not until 2009, when private equity firm Blackstone purchased the group—by then a portfolio of 10 parks that included Busch Gardens and Sesame Place—had SeaWorld’s potential as a profit-optimized business been fully considered. Blackstone pumped money into new attractions, and in 2013 it presented SeaWorld with great fanfare to the public market, parading a lemur and a delegation of penguins across the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. The IPO made a splash; the stock leaped 24% on its opening day, and with $1.5 billion in revenue, SeaWorld went on to have a record year.
It’s one of the ironies of this story that just when SeaWorld’s future had never looked brighter, it all started to come crashing down, a tsunami caused by SeaWorld’s Shamu shows and its collection of 29 captive orcas (the company owns 89,000 animals in total). The IPO happened in April, and SeaWorld’s market cap peaked at $3.6 billion in May. But by October, Blackfish was doing laps on CNN and seeping into America’s collective consciousness. The protests started, the stock took a dive, and, many would argue, SeaWorld stuck its head in the sand.
Manby didn’t just choose to go to SeaWorld. He felt called to it. He knew the company from his years in the industry, and he was passionate about its cause. “I really felt the company was getting a bad rap,” says Manby, a fit 57-year-old who wears his hair slicked back, Miami Vice–style. “I wanted to help them get through this.” It frustrated him especially that a group of people who cared so deeply for animals could be so vilified for harming them. The company’s efforts in early 2015, when Manby was considering coming to SeaWorld, only made him more certain of that. At the time, the company’s San Diego park shut down its sea lion and otter show to send staff to rescue and rehabilitate hundreds of animals stranded on the California Coast.
Friends describe Manby as a man of deep faith and genuine decency. He likes a challenge, and he’s known to be an obsessive and methodical decision-maker, as well as “just a real sensitive guy,” says his business-school buddy Dougal Cameron, a real estate entrepreneur in Texas. (Cameron also calls Manby, who has four daughters, the ideal “girl daddy.”)
Manby grew up poor in Battle Creek, Mich., a farm boy who loved animals and excelled at everything. He was a star athlete (he once guarded Magic Johnson, albeit poorly, in high school), a talented musician, and his college valedictorian. He wound up at Harvard Business School, where he dabbled in comedy and formed close friendships with three guys (Cameron is one of them) in his Bible study group. Even today they talk once a month in a regularly scheduled group phone call.
Manby went on to success at the car company Saturn and then at Saab, where he was a rising star—but ultimately all the travel made him miserable. He moved on to a brief stressful stint at Greenlight.com, Amazon’s auto-sales website, where he took charge just before the dotcom bubble burst. It was amid the wreckage of that crash that Manby was offered the job to run Herschend, a family-owned—and until then, family-run—amusement-park company.
It worked out wonderfully. Despite his outsider status, Manby proved himself a capable and creative park operator—boosting the business with low-cost festivals and family-friendly acquisitions like Ride the Ducks, America’s largest amphibious-vehicle tour operator. Just as skillfully, he shepherded the company through the financial crisis, concentrating marketing efforts and making low-impact cuts. Nelson Schwab, HFE’s chairman, marvels at Manby’s strategic-thinking skills. “He sees the bigger picture and how to achieve a bigger goal.” Running HFE was a good gig, one that Manby said (in his book) that he thought he would never leave.
But Manby had ideas for SeaWorld. In the interview process, he had given the board a 10-point plan. He wanted to bring financial discipline, amp up the park’s attractions, and reposition the company as an animal-conservation, rather than an animal-entertainment, brand. He also planned to address SeaWorld’s bruised reputation, which he considered something of a surface wound. “I thought if we got the truth out and talked about it, people would give us a fair shot,” Manby told me in June.
That was a miscalculation. SeaWorld had already plowed considerable resources into such storytelling efforts under the banner “SeaWorld Cares.” Manby’s tenure began just as the company launched a new campaign, this one featuring heartfelt television spots starring the company’s veterinarians and trainers. PETA turned that campaign on its head, too, continuing a counteroffensive it called “SeaWorld of Hurt.”
Manby was beginning to understand that changing the company’s reputation would take more than an ad campaign. But at SeaWorld, he was an outsider—and most insiders were feeling only resignation. There was an impervious haters-gonna-hate attitude. Sure, attendance had dropped, but guest surveys showed that those who actually visited the parks loved them. Many execs, some of whom had been there for decades, were convinced that if they just let it, Blackfish would blow over like the phases of animal activism before it. That’s what had happened with Free Willy.
It was a tough crowd for a man eager to make changes. But as it was, Manby had more immediate image issues to address. Days before he took office, SeaWorld circulated a video showing a drunken racist rant by a former-employee-turned-critic. It was a dumb idea. The move backfired when it was widely perceived as a smear campaign. Soon after, PETA discovered that SeaWorld employees had infiltrated its ranks by posing as animal-rights activists. A gleeful media pounced on the scandal. Manby, for his part, owned up to the embarrassment and called in an elite law firm to investigate (and later a former FBI director to advise).
It was, perhaps, a low point for the Love Doctor when he found himself admitting on an earnings call that the company had spied on activists and explaining that he and the board had intervened to stop the practice. One thing was clear: SeaWorld was nothing like Herschend, a place where higher-ups wrote handwritten notes to recognize good work and where employees lined up for the company’s “Leading With Love” training course. But for all of SeaWorld’s problems, Manby was still a believer.
The company had been working on Blue World, an orca-habitat project that it called “revolutionary.” SeaWorld had spent months in the planning, cultivating an advisory group of conservationists and academics from the likes of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the National Marine Mammal Foundation. The tanks envisioned would be the largest of their kind, 50 feet deep, with fast currents that would let the whales swim against moving water. And, indeed, in October 2015, the California Coastal Commission—the regulatory heavyweight that controls development along the state’s shoreline—approved the plan.
But there was a catch—a big one. The commission stipulated that SeaWorld would have to stop breeding orcas. For the company it was yet another lose-lose proposition. Even if it made a huge investment to improve the habitat of the last 11 California-based killer whales in its care, the state was stamping an end date on its business model.
As surprising as the ruling was, Manby had privately entertained the notion that SeaWorld would have to do more than build bigger tanks. In his quiet and deliberate style, he had begun sizing up options. Months earlier he had mobilized a task force of four board members—code-named the Q Committee—to research possible paths on the orca issue. Its nine-month study returned a compelling finding: Average Americans—not just animal-rights activists—thought that keeping large creatures in small spaces was wrong. The writing was on the wall. SeaWorld needed to change.
He had already taken a first step: talking with people who disagreed with him. Manby’s friend John Campbell, a former California congressman who had served as cochair of the animal-welfare caucus and knew Manby from Campbell’s car dealership days, offered to put the new SeaWorld executive in touch with Wayne Pacelle, the CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.
Campbell thought they were both “good guys” who would probably get along; he couldn’t understand why their organizations wouldn’t. Pacelle was writing his book The Humane Economy and had just finished a critical chapter on SeaWorld. In June 2015, Campbell began moderating a series of friendly if initially awkward phone calls between the two CEOs. In December he brokered a dinner. “They just needed to look in each other’s eyes,” he says.
Campbell didn’t hear from them again until March 16, the day before Pacelle and Manby popped up together on all three major network morning shows announcing that SeaWorld would end orca breeding and theatrical shows, and that the two organizations were now (kind of) allies. Together they would fight shark finning—where fishermen cut off the fins for food in a practice that kills 75 million sharks a year—and other animal welfare injustices.
There had actually been lots of activity in the interim: Manby and Pacelle started texting regularly, and Pacelle made his first-ever trip to SeaWorld, a place where he had previously vowed he would never go. Some things horrified him, like the swim-with-dolphins program at Discovery Cove; others impressed him, like SeaWorld’s rescue work.
Ultimately the unlikely alliance seemed to come down to empathy. “People who work there love animals; appreciation of animals is a big part of their enterprise,” says Pacelle. “If you sit down, look at the other person, and see the complexity, you find you have more common ground than you might have imagined when lobbing cannonballs.”
Manby had another clandestine effort underway—this one led by his emissary, John Reilly, who was then president of SeaWorld San Diego and is now chief operating officer. In late 2015, Reilly traveled to a “general aviation airport” outside Sacramento for a secret meeting with Richard Bloom, a California assemblyman whose district includes PETA strongholds like Santa Monica and West Hollywood—dubbing the private booth at the restaurant the “cone of silence.”
The point of the meeting was simple. Bloom had authored legislation that would have proved devastating to SeaWorld: an anti-captivity bill. Both men felt there was room to compromise. It turned out, there was. On the same day in March that Manby and Pacelle announced their alliance in a press blitz, Reilly and Bloom appeared together publicly to introduce a new piece of state legislation, the Orca Protection Act. The bill had been watered down from the one Bloom had introduced in 2014—the park could keep its whales—but it banned orca breeding and shows in California, a restriction even broader than the one imposed by the California Coastal Commission. Still, SeaWorld wasn’t fighting it; the company was championing it. And shareholders were thrilled, sending the stock up 17% over the next two days. (The bill was passed by the legislature in August and was signed into law this month.)
Months of quiet diplomacy had paid off. Manby’s faith—that SeaWorld could be seen as a force for good—was bearing out. “We’ve completely changed the mind-set in D.C. and California,” Manby told Fortune in June. “We’ve completely cleared the air.”
But SeaWorld had also committed itself to radical changes. Its signature Shamu shows would be phased out and replaced by less circus-like “encounters,” in which trainers explain how whales behave in the wild in a “natural-looking setting.” That prospect upset many at the company, some of whom left. Diehard fans considered it caving to PETA and expect it will only invite more trouble over, say, dolphin shows. Manby calls the decision among the hardest he has ever made and says breaking the news to his animal-care staff, who never viewed their roles as anything other than a force for good, was the hardest part.
But Manby has a plan for this rescue mission. The idea is to attract moms and millennials by infusing the parks with what he considers SeaWorld’s long-overlooked purpose: caring for the planet and the creatures on it. In Manby’s view SeaWorld parks can be educational and fun. (In a play for the Christmas festival business, SeaWorld licensed the rights to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” last year.) Part of the strategy is to add attractions and turn the parks “inside out”—showcasing the animal-rescue and rehabilitation work the company does. SeaWorld spent more than $13 million on these activities last year; among thousands of other efforts, it freed 20 manatees from a storm pipe in Miami. All of it will fall under a rubric Manby dubs “experiences that matter.”
Riding Mako, SeaWorld’s new shark-themed ride—the tallest, fastest, longest roller coaster in Orlando—Manby appeared utterly carefree. It was opening day for the attraction, a hot, cloudless morning in early June, and as I white-knuckled the safety bar, Manby threw his hands in the air and left them there for the full, winding, two-minute, 73-mile-per-hour ride.
Named after the mako shark, the coaster is surrounded by signs of SeaWorld’s new advocacy bent. Manby hopes people will take a ride and come out caring about the predator’s plight. To help them do so, the company has rigged up a radar screen in the gift shop that tracks sharks SeaWorld has tagged in the wild. Visitors can observe migratory patterns or perhaps see evidence of a tragic shark capture. (The tagging devices sometimes show up, ominously, on land in New England, Mexico, or as far away as Spain.)
SeaWorld had also partnered on Mako with wildlife artist and marine biologist Guy Harvey—a big get for the once-toxic park. Harvey, who enjoys a cultlike following and whose work is displayed on the hulls of Norwegian Cruise ships, designed merchandise for SeaWorld and painted a mural along Mako’s entrance. He was on hand opening day to sign autographs and talk about his study of sharks.
Mako is important to Manby—one of his first big decisions as CEO was to approve its development—and it’s what he wants SeaWorld’s parks to be: educational but still thrilling. Though SeaWorld’s survey data show that the public has responded positively to its new direction—four out five said they are more likely to visit—at the parks it remains, in some ways, business as usual. SeaWorld’s theatrical whale shows will continue in San Diego until 2017 and for even longer in its two other marine parks. Spectacles involving dolphin-riding trainers and shows like “Sea Lion High” will go on indefinitely. Which is perhaps why the activists, many of whom want SeaWorld’s animals to be moved to sanctuaries, have hardly let up.
Park guests on the Manta roller coaster in Orlando. SeaWorld is investing more resources in rides, some with educational themes. Manby wants to create “experiences that matter.”Photograph by Landon Nordeman for Fortune
The day I was in town, a PETA member clad in goggles and a porpoise-themed wet suit got press attention by submerging herself in a large fish tank on a street in downtown Orlando. That was perhaps in reaction to a video of one of SeaWorld’s whales, named Morgan, on loan to a marine park in Spain, that had gone viral that week: Morgan had defied trainers during the orca show and rather than swimming had remained on her pool’s concrete ledge. Animal-rights groups claimed she had beached herself in an attempted suicide. (Malia, a whale at the show I attended, did the same thing, but my crowd was a friendly one.) SeaWorld says the behavior is not concerning and notes that Morgan has a hearing deficit.
Earlier this summer, the animal-rights group erected a few billboards around Orlando just for Manby: “Joel, every night I lie alone in the tub and cry,” they read. “Please let me go. —Tilly.”
When I ask Manby how he might update Love Works based on his experience at SeaWorld, he pauses to give the question some thought. “Sometimes life isn’t fair,” he says. “But you have to move on.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the date on which California’s Orca Protection Act became law.
A version of this article appears in the September 15, 2016 issue of Fortune with the headline “Swimming Upstream.”