Nick Varney: 23 years of Merlin highs and lows

Nick Varney, Merlin Entertainments

Nick Varney stood down as chief executive of Merlin Entertainments on Friday, after more than 23 years in the role.

His time at the helm of the world’s second largest attractions operator has seen a number of highs and lows. Here we take a look at some of both ends of the spectrum.

2005-2006: Legoland and Gardaland purchases

Varney identified potential in the Legoland parks when they were up for sale in 2005, eventually becoming Merlin’s first major theme park acquisition.

A year later, and after convincing investors Blackstone as he had done with Legoland, Varney secured the Gardaland theme park in Italy.

Legoland would go on to become Merlin’s biggest exportable brand, on both small and large scales worldwide.

2007: Merlin absorbs the Tussauds Group

Merlin took over the running of attractions operated by the Tussauds Group – notably the UK’s Alton Towers, Thorpe Park, Chessington World of Adventures and Germany’s Heide Park.

Of course, the Madame Tussauds brand itself also became part of Merlin, as did Warwick Castle, the Dungeons, Sea Life Centres and the London Eye.

Warwick Castle
Warwick Castle added considerable diversity to Merlin’s portfolio

It was the merger of Tussauds into Merlin that was really the making of the latter. The company now had huge, famous brands, which Merlin later developed extensively.

Warwick Castle forced Merlin to evolve as it became caretaker of a significant piece of British history for the first time.

Flooding and fires soon required considerable expenditure to restore the castle, and Merlin has needed to fund all maintenance from visitor admissions.

In July 2007, Varney said it was the intention to bring Merlin to the stock market “within three years”.

2010: Public flotation scrapped

Varney said that a decision to float Merlin on the stock exchange was pulled due to market volatility.

“We were ready to float in 2010 and did all the work to do that but stock ­markets turned volatile and effectively closed for three years,” he later said in 2013.

“We hope people who went for Royal Mail will want to own a bit of the ­London Eye, Legoland and Alton Towers.”

London Stock Exchange

2013: Honorary Doctor and public flotation

Varney was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Staffordshire University in recognition of his “considerable business success on a global scale, notably as Chief Executive of the world’s second largest leisure group Merlin.”

The university said the award also recognised “the personal and pivotal role he has played in Staffordshire’s best known tourist attraction Alton Towers.”

Varney said he was “deeply honoured and flattered” to receive the award.

Later that year Merlin was placed on the London Stock Exchange, becoming public for the first time. Shares jumped 12% on their first day of trading.

“The listing will provide us with the platform for our next stage of development,” Varney said.

2015: The Smiler accident

Varney took the lead in virtually all public communications regarding the horrific Smiler rollercoaster accident at Alton Towers.

He was interviewed on television and appeared visibly moved by the incident, which seriously injured five people, some requiring amputations.

Nick Varney, Merlin Entertainments
Varney faced the media in the aftermath of the Smiler incident

One particular interview with the broadcaster Kay Burley attracted thousands of complaints for being too aggressive towards Varney.

As Merlin was eventually found guilty of failings under the Health and Safety at Work Act, and fined a record sum, Varney and Merlin accepted full responsibility.

His handling of the incident likely kept him in his job, as had Merlin been perceived as not taking responsibility, Varney himself could have paid the ultimate price.

2017: Terrorism hits

Terrorist attacks in London send tourism in the British capital nosediving.

Merlin’s London cluster of attractions is a significant contributor to its earnings and as such the effects on tourism numbers are highlighted in trading results.

“Despite this, thanks to the efforts of our extraordinary team, we have reported overall growth in revenue, profit and cash flow, welcoming 66 million visitors – our highest on record,” Varney said.

2018: Yields to wooden rollercoasters

After years of branding wooden rollercoasters as unmarketable and unwanted by the public, Varney signed off Merlin’s first such ride.

Alton Towers’ Wicker Man has since been a huge success in terms of marketing and public adoption – Varney was proven wrong.

One can assume he was happy to be proven incorrect after years of good-natured standoff on the issue with veteran ride concept designer John Wardley.

Wicker Man, Alton Towers
The Wicker Man was initially marketed as the world’s first ride to “fuse wood and fire”

Wardley says that Varney always insists on both a “killer image” to represent a ride and short tagline to explain what it does.

With the Wicker Man, he seems to have softened towards the end of his tenure and has possibly set a precedent for future investment in wooden rollercoasters by Merlin.

2019-2020: Reprivatisation and COVID-19

After stating that Merlin’s 2013 listing on the London Stock Exchange had always been the objective, 2019’s private takeover for £4.8 billion was undoubtedly not what Varney had wanted.

If he had changed his mind then he did not clearly say why that was the case, but rather he towed the line of it being in the company’s best interests.

It is possible that the re-privatisation of Merlin was what saw Varney begin edging towards the exit door.

But in the final months of his tenure as CEO, the now-private Merlin has signed off significant capital expenditure across all of its theme parks in the UK.

Project Exodus, Thorpe Park rollercoaster
Thorpe Park is planning on building the UK’s tallest, and possibly fastest, rollercoaster by 2024

Varney also once again steered Merlin through a crisis, this time in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic, concentrating on recovery during his final stages as CEO.

And the volatility of the pandemic might have been all the worse had Merlin been exposed to the wild swings of the stock exchange many listed companies had to endure in early 2020.

Post-lockdowns and re-privatisation, Merlin’s old rulebook of staggered investments across the various parks has been thrown aside, at least for now.

‘Merlin family’

Varney signed off his time as CEO on Friday by thanking the Merlin “family”.

“It has been my absolute pleasure to work with all the Merlin family,” he said.

“I have loved every minute of my time in this industry, and it has been a privilege to have led Merlin over these last 23 years.”

But he chose not to focus on the big moments and headline additions, rather the smaller things that make up Merlin’s operation.

Nick Varney, Merlin Entertainments
Varney founded Merlin in December 1998

“It’s been in the smaller initiatives too, the ones driven from the passion of our teams, which underpin the truly memorable experiences we deliver every day.

“An upgraded SEA LIFE display, a new Dungeon show, a stunning new wax figure display in Madame Tussauds, a new ride, event or land at our theme parks, another incredible themed bedroom in our hotels, a Magic Space installed by the Magic Wand Charity.

“And not to forget a certain Beluga Whale Sanctuary which I managed to visit recently to say goodbye to two very special friends.

“All of these magical experiences are what we create and deliver every day, and what makes Merlin the great company it is.”

His absence will leave a hole Merlin has never known, and that will undoubtedly change the company. It remains to be seen if the changes are good or bad.