Rebuilding From a Position of Crisis: 5 Lessons from SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby

Less than a year after taking the helm of SeaWorld in Orlando, San Antonio and San Diego, Manby decided that the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which told the story of a SeaWorld trainer who’d been killed by an orca, simply had done too much damage to the existing SeaWorld business model for it to continue. So now, SeaWorld parks will gradually phase out the trick shows and pivot to providing “experiences that matter” by leveraging a marine-life conservation theme.

“We made people fall in love with killer whales, but now that’s one of the leading reasons people are uncomfortable with SeaWorld.”

“We built the brand around Shamu many years ago and made people fall in love with killer whales,” Manby told Chief Executive, “but now the paradox is that it’s one of the leading reasons people are uncomfortable with SeaWorld.”

Here are 5 lessons other CEOs can learn from Manby’s experience rebuilding a strong brand out of a crisis situation.

1. Face up to the inevitable. Last spring, Manby took the helm of the $1.4-billion SeaWorld with the mandate to pull the company out of a financial and attendance swoon that had been brought on by Blackfish and its fallout. And for a while he really believed this could be accomplished without ending the killer-whale shows. But when overwhelming consumer research and his own gut told him otherwise, he embraced the need to turn SeaWorld in a new direction, painful as that would be. “Society is changing and moving in a different direction,” he said, “and we needed to get ahead of it. Our research showed it would be a losing battle” to do otherwise.

2. Apply what you know. While leading such an acute shift in direction was new to him, leadership itself was not. Manby came to SeaWorld after a highly regarded 12-year run as CEO of Herschend Family Entertainment, the Atlanta-based operator of Dollywood, Silver Dollar City and other popular theme parks. One area where he’d proven his chops was in monetizing the brands that the parks already represented. That’s exactly what he would have to do in spades at SeaWorld to evolve the brand to a broader platform.

3. Make sure all your constituencies line up. Before his decision, Manby consulted with SeaWorld’s board and owners such as the Blackstone Group, a private-equity firm that once owned 63% of the company but, after the Blackfish debacle, had reduced its stake to 25%. But Manby said he couldn’t get unanimous support from 20,000 employees for the decision. “You never make a decision this big and difficult and have everyone agree with you,” he said.

4. Craft a careful strategy just for disclosing the news. Manby’s strategy for communicating the change began with an op-ed column explaining it in the Los Angeles Times, a press release, and media interviews following the announcement. Also, he had managed to get one of SeaWorld’s biggest critics on this issue—the Humane Society of the United States—not only to back the company’s decision but actually to become a partner with SeaWorld for the future. The two parties backed up that agreement this week with a full-page advertisement in The Wall Street Journal.

5. Communicate with the rank-and-file. While running the family-owned Herschend, Manby solidified a corporate culture there which had been built on a management philosophy of “servant leadership” that stemmed from the owners’ Christian faith and which Manby shared and refined. In dealing with SeaWorld employees in the immediate aftermath of his big decision, Manby was going to need plenty of goodwill in reserve.

To prepare himself for that role, among other things, Manby talked with CEOs who had faced similar situations for dealing with an American culture that has turned sharply against traditional animal acts in many ways. They included Kenneth Feld, CEO of the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus, which is retiring all of its touring elephants to a 200-acre conservation center in May.

At SeaWorld, “I hit all the properties, all the parks, within 48 hours, and just sat and talked and listened to people,” Manby said. “They shared the normal emotions of loss: shock, anger and fear. And I had to try to get them on board with the future.”

Yet through this experience, Manby said, he quickly got “an incredible vibe” from the very people who’d been most affected by the growing calls for SeaWorld to change its approach: orca trainers themselves.

“We talked it through,” he said. “And then I got two unbelievable emails from some of the leaders of those areas saying that they were on board and ready to go forward. We’re going to engage them heavily and we will get them excited about the new orca encounters, where they will play a bigger role in the forefront.”

Manby’s lesson for other CEOs who might be unfortunate enough to have to break such news to their employees?

“Just don’t be afraid to go in where you know it’s going to be painful and people aren’t necessarily going to like what you did,” he said. “When you’re preaching ‘love works’ as I was able to do at Herschend, it’s easy to get everyone behind you. But when you come in and tell people you’re winding down the orca program, you’re not quite as popular.”

 

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Dale Buss
Dale Buss is a long-time contributor to Chief Executive, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and other top-flight business publications. He lives in Michigan.

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