Tom Stieghorst
Tom Stieghorst

SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment has been owned in the past by a book publisher and a beer conglomerate, but its current controlling shareholder is that species of corporate animal known as a private equity fund.

Private equity firm Blackstone Group acquired the 56-year-old company from Anheuser-Busch after the 2008 financial collapse. Since then, the executive suite at Orlando-based SeaWorld has been a revolving door, with individuals named Atchison, D'Alessandro, Manby, Reilly, Antorcha, Rivera and Swanson holding the CEO or interim CEO title.

Employees are said to be a little jaded about the prospect of what comes next.

"Morale has been at an all-time low every time I've talked to someone for the last year and a half," said Dennis L. Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services, a leisure development consultant familiar with SeaWorld. "It keeps sinking. I don't know what the bottom is."

The last full-time CEO, Serge Rivera, resigned in April less than five months into the job. A SeaWorld statement said the resignation was due to disagreements over the board's involvement in the decision-making at SeaWorld.

Former Carnival Corp. executive Gus Antorcha cited similar reasons for leaving the SeaWorld CEO job just last September.

SeaWorld's current eight-person board is chaired by Scott Ross, an alumnus of the Apollo Global Management private equity firm who since 2015 has run his own private equity outfit called Hill Path Capital. It owns 34.8% of SeaWorld, making it Hill Path's largest investment.

What exactly Ross wants to do with his firm's investment isn't clear to everyone. Speigel said that the strategy pursued by Rivera was to get the marine mammal exhibits and roller coaster attractions at the parks to work together.

"That was putting them back on the rails again, and it just appears and the word out there is that Ross just didn't support that and wanted to take it in a different direction, and I don't know what that direction is," Speigel said.

Ross and interim CEO Marc Swanson have some time to figure it out. SeaWorld parks remain closed because of the coronavirus threat, with 95% of their employees furloughed.  Although it is losing $25 million a month, SeaWorld has resources to pay its bills through the fourth quarter of 2021, according to a recent filing.

The shame of it is that under Rivera, the parks were performing. In the first two months of 2020, attendance was up 9% to a record 1.9 million visitors for the period, and revenue was up $13 million, to $120.6 million, also a record. "They were getting back to the basics of their core business, they were spending their [capital expense] money in the right proportions and in the right areas, and they were building the morale up," Speigel said.

Now it's back to square one with the CEO search. But given the history, who would take the job? There are two possibilities, according to Speigel. "You'd either need to be paid a lot of money and have a wonderful golden parachute or a masochist," he said.

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