As revenue and attendance slip ever faster down amid a flurry of backlash, SeaWorld announced on Thursday that its CEO Jim Atchison was stepping down. With a $2.4 million severance package, Atchison will be staying on as vice chairman of the board and chairman of the SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund, as well as a consultant to the company.
David D'Alessandro, the company's chairman, will step in as CEO for the time being, reportedly until another candidate is found. At the same time, the company announced a corporate overhaul that will result in employees losing their jobs.
So who's in charge now? As the interim CEO, David D'Alessandro stands to face the most scrutiny for the time being. D'Alessandro, the former chairman and CEO of John Hancock Financial Services, is a marketing whiz who specializes in brand-building. He has authored three books: "Brand Warfare: 10 Rules for Building the Killer Brand," "Career Warfare: 10 Rules for Building a Successful Personal Brand and Fighting to Keep It" and "Executive Warfare: 10 Rules for Engagement for Winning Your War for Success." He's also a member of the Boston University Board of Trustees and a former partner in the Boston Red Sox ownership group.
Called a "master marketer" on his own website, he writes at length on his secrets and tips for success in the business world. He even created a list of "10 Rules of Engagement For Winning Your War for Success." Neither D'Alessandro nor his predecessor had any scientific or animal husbandry experience.
Despite the corporate overhaul, Naomi Rose, Ph.D., a marine mammal scientist with the Animal Welfare Institute, says that the company desperately needs a new business model, not just a rebranding.
"One can only hope any new CEO will recognize that the only way to right this ship is to make real operational changes, not simply refurbish the company's marketing," Rose told The Dodo. "SeaWorld needs to break out of the rut it's in and go in a new direction that de-emphasizes and even eliminates the animal shows."
Rose also noted that it's possible the company may simply relocate the source of backlash in the U.S.: its captive orca whales. SeaWorld has already announced plans for park expansion in Asia and the Middle East. Simply moving the orcas to international parks "would be disastrous for the animals," she said.
Jeffrey Ventre, a former SeaWorld trainer and whistleblower who appeared in the documentary "Blackfish," told The Dodo that SeaWorld's real problem lies in its hiring executives who believe the "happy Shamu image."
"They're the ones who have sold the idea to management that swimming with captive killer whales is safe, that killer whales thrive in their care, and that blame trainers for their own injuries and death when the animals go off behavior," he said. "Whether this is the beginning of the end will be determined by SeaWorld. The company needs to change or crumble."
Two other major additions were made this week to SeaWorld's cast of characters: Ellen Tauscher, a former congresswoman, and William Gray, former co-CEO of the communications agency Ogilvy North, are also joining the board. Tauscher is a former Wall Street executive who became a powerful Democrat for 13 years, serving as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from California's 10th district. Interestingly, it was another California Democrat, Richard Bloom, a representative of the 50th district, who introduced a bill to ban orca whale captivity in the state earlier this year.