Deborah Thomas is stepping down as CEO of Ardent Leisure Group, the parent company behind the troubled Dreamworld theme park on the Gold Coast where four people died last year.
Thomas will leave on June 30 after just over two years in the top job to become the company’s chief operating officer in Australia and New Zealand, as well as taking on a new role of chief customer officer. The former magazine publisher, who joined the board as a non‐executive director in 2013 before becoming CEO in April 2015, will remain an executive director.
Ardent chairman George Venardos said Thomas will prioritise the transformation of the theme park’s business, group marketing, media and corporate affairs. But the changes appear to leave her outside the company’s increasing focus on its US bowling business ahead of plans to change its name to Main Event Entertainment Group.
“During Deborah’s leadership our Company has experienced an unprecedented level of reorientation and change and has positioned itself strongly for solid future growth,” he said.
Former Nine Entertainment CFO and COO Simon Kelly will be appointed to the CEO and managing director roles on July 1. Kelly left Nine last year and had been working as a project director at Virgin Australia. He was previously a director and the CFO at gambling machine manufacturer Aristocrat Leisure.
“Simon, who will transition to the role over the next few months with the support of Deborah, brings to the Group a wealth of experience in the management of multinational operations, financial control and the entertainment sector,” Venardos said.
Kelly’s base salary of $600,000 per annum, including superannuation, for the first three years, is $70,000 less than Thomas earned. He will have annual short-term incentives of $475,000 and the same figure as an annual long-term incentive.
The company said he had agreed to a lower base cash salary in lieu of an upfront grant of equity “in order to increase his alignment with shareholders”.
Kelly will be granted $1.5 million in shares that cannot be traded until 1 July, 2020.
Ardent’s senior management is undergoing further changes with CFO Richard Johnson resigning for personal reasons after 12 years. He leaves on July 15.
“We are sorry to lose Richard but we completely understand and support his desire to return with his family to his native UK,” the chairman said.
The changes come after Thomas oversaw the sale of the company’s Goodlife Health Clubs and d’Albora Marinas, but struggled in the wake of the Dreamworld disaster.
Four people died in October last year on the Thunder River rapids ride at Dreamworld when two rafts collided and the theme park was closed until December 10.
Ardent Leisure posted a loss in the first half of FY17, hurt by the Dreamworld tragedy, the closure of Kingpin Crown for refurbishment and the loss of earnings from Health Clubs.
Ardent posted recorded a statutory loss of $49.4 million, after a $95.2 million write-down on property, plant and equipment, as well as goodwill and costs involving the Dreamworld incident. Attendance at the company’s theme parks fell 27.1%.
Earlier this month, the company blamed bad weather for a slow recovery for its theme parks. In a trading update for March 1 to March 24, the company’s theme parks recorded revenue of $3.1 million, down 34.3% on the same period last year.
After bouncing along below $2 mark in recent weeks, Ardent’s share price has risen nearly 2.5% in early trade today to $2.06 following news of the management changes and is now up around 8% in the past week.