SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. announced that CEO Jim Atchison is stepping down from his position come January. The company made its announcement on Thursday amid free-falling stocks and failing P.R. stemming from the popular documentary Blackfish, a film that exposes the dangers of keeping orcas in captivity.
In addition, the company also announced that a wave of job cuts is on the way as part of saving $50 million a year, though it did not specify exactly how many jobs will be cut.
Atchison will be replaced by Chairman David D'Alessandro as interim CEO on January 15 until a permanent replacement is found.
The beginning of 2014 saw a 13 percent drop in attendance at SeaWorld parks across the U.S. compared to the same period in 2013. On top of that, SeaWorld Entertainment Inc.'s biggest shareholder sold millions of its company shares in April.
Blackstone LLP bought SeaWorld for $2.3 billion from Anheuser-Busch in December 2009. SeaWorld went public in April 2013, with an initial public offering of 26 million shares. Blackstone remained the biggest shareholder with 63 percent of the company. Then exactly one year later, it rid itself of 1.75 million shares, with SeaWorld agreeing to buy them. Fifteen million more shares were shed in an underwritten offering, bringing Blackstone's stake in the company down to 25 percent and making it no longer the majority shareholder.
The attendance dip and share dumping came on the heels of a rash of popular musical acts condemning SeaWorld and then canceling performance gigs with the company. Musicians like Willie Nelson, Heart, Barenaked Ladies, and Joan Jett all backed out of scheduled performances.
All this due to Blackfish and the raising of public awareness over the park's treatment of its orcas.
SeaWorld began facing a barrage of negative publicity since the release of the documentary. The company fought back, publicly objecting to the film when it came out and denying the film would affect attendance. There's a still a page on the company's website calling the documentary "propaganda."
Animal rights group PETA has been challenging SeaWorld for years, but even more so since Blackfish.
In November, the group filed a complaint against SeaWorld claiming that its vice president of veterinary services, Dr. Christopher M. Dold, made false claims about the welfare of the orcas and other animals at the company's parks. The complaint specifically dealt with an article in Florida Today by Dold in which he wrote, "I can unequivocally state that our whales, along with every other animal in our parks, are thriving, both mentally and physically."
"These were misleading statements from a veterinarian," PETA's director of animal law, Jared Goodman, told New Times. "The day after that article, a PETA vet documented the animals that are suffering at the park in California. She observed orcas laying motionless and a walrus swimming in circles. She also noted that the dolphins had lesions."
The observations Goodman referred to can be seen at the PETA website SeaWorldofHurt.com.
SeaWorld has yet to respond to PETA's complaint. But Atchison, who has served as the company's CEO since 2009, is on his way out, which the animal rights group sees as a victory of sorts. SeaWorld did say Atchison isn't out of the company, however. He is expected to be named vice chairman and will be nominated to the board of its independent nonprofit conservation fund.
On Thursday, PETA Foundation Deputy General Counsel Delcianna Winders released a statement regarding the Atchison news.
"Jim Atchison's watch has meant lawsuits, tanking stock, canceled performances by musical acts, falling ticket sales, and continued deprivation and isolation for orcas at SeaWorld," Winders says. "Public opinion has turned solidly against SeaWorld, and the park can't turn back time. The only way to move is forward by finding someone who can take the park in an innovative new direction, one that PETA hopes will see animals released to coastal sanctuaries and new exhibits, such as state-of-the-art virtual reality experiences that would allow visitors to learn about and interact with marine life without imprisoning any animals."