SeaWorld

Q&A with SeaWorld CEO Jim Atchison

April 19, 2013: 12:44 PM ET

seaworldWhat happens when you bring penguins to the New York Stock Exchange.

FORTUNE -- Theme park operator SeaWorld Entertainment (SEAS) began trading on the NYSE earlier today, after raising around $702 million in its IPO.

The company priced 26 million shares at $27 per share, compared to original plans to offer 20 million shares at between $24 and $27 per share. That gave it an initial market cap of around $2.5 billion, less than four years after the company was purchased by The Blackstone Group (BX) from Anheuser-Busch InBev SA in 2009 for $2.3 billion

So I spent some time on the phone with SeaWorld CEO Jim Atchison, who began with the company in 1985 as a parking lot attendant at Busch Gardens Tampa. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation:

Fortune: After SeaWorld filed its S-1, there were reports that the company was running a parallel process to find a buyer. Were those reports accurate, and why go with the IPO?

Jim Atchison: I'll start with the latter part first, and say that today is a testament as to why we went with an IPO. The order side was increased, we went to the top end of our range and now are trading above that. What I will say about rumors of other paths is that when you file an S1 it sends up a flare to anyone who might have interest in another sort of transaction. But at the end of the day we've been on this path since the day we filed the S-1.

Does that mean all M&A interest was inbound rather than outbound?

That's probably a better question for Blackstone than for me, since they're the sponsor. Blackstone is one of the world's premier private equity and alternative asset managers. Everything in their portfolio is for sale because that's what they do, so it wouldn't surprise me if they had some discussions or debate about alternate avenues.

What type of questions did you get during the roadshow?

First, it was nice to have such a powerful storied brand. Our parks have been around for more than 50 years, so every time we walked into a room everyone had a Sea World or Busch Gardens story to share. That was terrific. We also have a fairly straightforward business mode, so it's not hard to grasp what we do and how we do it.

If anything was eye-opening it was misunderstandings about the opportunities we have for growth relative to our IP. People were intrigued to learn that we have a top-rated Saturday morning TV show on ABC, that we have a Trainer Barbie and that there are apps and games based on our attractions.

Did anything, such as the Boston attacks, threaten to derail the IPO from a timing perspective?

Well the events in Boston were just awful and it was a bit hard to focus on the IPO. Still is. And from a pure business standpoint there were some forecasts out of Asia that gave us some jitters, but ultimately we stayed on schedule.

SeaWorld itself only gets a minority share of the IPO proceeds, with Blackstone getting the rest. What does the IPO, therefore, provide to SeaWorld?

With the proceeds the company is getting we can deleverage a bit. We have some senior notes we can retire and portions of some term loans. So we can improve the balance sheet. Also, to see our company listed and traded is important for our employees. I started at this company as a teenager, and have seen it through a lot of phases. Getting this tremendous response gives me a lot of pride in what we've all done.

What's it like bringing penguins, otters and a lemur onto the NYSE floor?

They just take over the place here. These animals are the essence of our brand, connecting people to nature, and traders at the center of the capital markets turn into 6 year-olds when they see a penguin walking by. It's amazing.

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  • Mr. Schwarzman's penguins

    FORTUNE -- The Blackstone Group (BX) sometimes just really wants to meet with its portfolio company employees. So yesterday the private equity giant invited over a couple of penguins from Sea World, the amusement park operator that Blackstone is planning to either sell or take public early this year.

    Okay, not exactly. Seems that SeaWorld is participating in a New York City trade show, and brought over some of its more MORE

    - Jan 18, 2013 11:49 AM ET
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