Two self-professed animal lovers – Joel Manby, president and CEO of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, and Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) – joined the stage for a conversation on values-driven business at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business on September 29. Ladan Manteghi, executive director of Georgetown McDonough’s Global Social Enterprise Initiative, moderated the conversation.
“This is a timely conversation on many fronts,” Manteghi said. “SeaWorld has seen controversies. When businesses face a crisis, it isn’t about what the crisis is, but how it is handled and you get to the other side.”
In March 2016, after more than 50 years in business, SeaWorld made a major announcement regarding its business model, including ending orca breeding, transitioning its parks from theatrical shows to educational programs, and partnering with HSUS to tackle larger ocean issues.
“We faced the ultimate business paradox,” said Manby, who took the helm of SeaWorld in 2015. “We had built our entire brand around Shamu. In the midst of that we had falling favorability, falling sales, and falling attendance. Ultimately, I looked at the data, and it was clear that the orca issue [of keeping them in tanks in captivity] made most people uncomfortable. We had to make a very difficult decision.”
That reality – paired with backlash from the documentary Blackfish and legislation put forward in California – led Manby to radically change the company’s business model.
The seemingly unlikely partnership between SeaWorld and HSUS was the result of openness and trust on both sides.
“From the very beginning, I felt that the purpose of our work was to foster change,” said Pacelle, author of The Humane Economy. “It’s not about scolding, or about me, or about the organization. It’s about people becoming more aware of these problems and then taking intentional action.”
The relationship took time to develop, especially given the organizations’ historically different stances on key issues.
“When somebody wants to change, do we say ‘you can never be with us?’ or do we say ‘let’s find a way to get there?’” Pacelle said. “We talked and we came to a set of three or four issues that were true to our mission. If we live in a world where we can have no progress with our adversaries, we live in a static world. I want the Humane Society to be associated with constructive progress.”
For Manby, a sense of trust and transparency was key.
“We sat together, and we trusted each other,” Manby said. “We don’t agree on everything. Stepping back from all this, dialog and communication over difficult issues is the only way we can make real progress.”
Now, SeaWorld is focused on its next chapter. In its transition away from orca shows, the company is investing millions in conservation efforts, virtual reality technology, and attractions that blend education and entertainment. SeaWorld and HSUS also are using their partnership to take a stand on issues affecting the oceans and marine life.
“These issues – whether the health of our oceans, shark finning, or commercial whaling – are bigger than any one of us,” Manby said. “We have to work together. As a human being, when I see what humans do to the animals and the earth, we have a responsibility to work to correct some of the damage.”
In his year-and-a-half at the helm, Manby has embraced what he sees as SeaWorld’s animal conservation mission.
“Five years from now, SeaWorld is going to be seen as a force for conservation,” Manby said.