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Scott O’Neil takes the reins from Nick Varney at Merlin Entertainment


Merlin Entertainments, the UK-based global attractions operator which is second only to Disney in size, has chosen its new CEO, following the retirement of founder, Nick Varney.

American Scott O’Neil takes over from Varney today (15 November 2022), being responsible for the global growth of the business, as well as the operation of the company’s 147 attractions in 24 countries. He will report to the Merlin board and its investors, Kirkbi, Blackstone and CPPIB.

Varney has spent 23 years growing Merlin from small beginnings as Vardon, to a multi-brand global attractions business with a diversified portfolio, global reach and strong development pipeline, earning the respect of the global attractions industry in the process.

The journey has included several major private equity deals, an expansion deal with Lego and the purchase of Tussauds Group in 2007 from Dubai International Capital. A sweet move given Varney was formerly an employee of Tussauds.

In stepping away from the business, Varney said: “I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved over the past 23 years. We’ve built an incredible business with amazing attractions and brilliant people and I have every confidence that Merlin will go from strength to strength under Scott’s leadership.”

O’Neil, a Harvard MBA, comes to Merlin from a career in sport, which has included a stint as CEO of Harris Blitzer Sports and Entertainment, a portfolio of sports, entertainment and investment properties, where he oversaw more than $2bn growth, taking the business from US$415m to US$2.5bn in value.

Under O’Neil’s leadership, the company evolved from managing a single basketball team – the Philadelphia 76ers – to become a live sports and entertainment group with a number of professional teams, real estate holdings and operating divisions.

Merlin says O’Neil’s expertise lies in “building brands, driving attendances, leveraging data, engaging fans through the guest experience and partnering with major brands to drive growth.”

O’Neil said: "Merlin is a business with phenomenal tailwinds, whose purpose is to bring joy and make lasting memories for families and friends around the world.

“Nick has built an incredible business and achieved unprecedented growth in this industry and yet there are still tremendous upside opportunities ahead to continue this momentum.

“We’re actively building and searching for new attractions and sites,” he said. “We’re fortunate that we’re not limited to working with a single studio or content pipeline and so we’re seeking additional brand partners to redefine our attractions business, as well as looking to aggressively expand offerings and experiences in our current attractions.”

Merlin’s attractions include 10 Legoland Resort Theme Parks and hotels, six resort theme parks, including Alton Towers, Heide Park and Gardaland, as well as a portfolio of global brands in city destinations, such as Sea Life aquariums, Madame Tussauds, Peppa Pig World of Play, the London Eye and Sydney Tower Eye. The company also partners with Sony Pictures Entertainment and Hasbro

Merlin also has three more Legoland Resorts under development in China and further openings planned across the US and Asia.

Chair, Roland Hernandez, paid tribute to Varney, saying: "Merlin is one of the best leisure businesses in the world thanks to Nick’s leadership, passion and talent and we wish him all the best in his retirement.”

“Scott has significant experience in the entertainment industry, a proven track record of delivering business transformation and the vision and ambition to lead Merlin through the next exciting stages of its global development,“ continued Hernandez. ”The Board has every confidence in him, and we look forward to working closely together over the coming years"

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