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At First, Firm Only Had Eyes for Whales : A Growing Harcourt Ended Up Buying Marineland, Only to Close It

February 12, 1987|TIM WATERS | Times Staff Writer

The new owners of Marineland--who announced on Wednesday that that was the park's last day--were initially interested only in purchasing the park's two killer whales, Corky and Orky, a corporate official said this week.

Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, which operates three Sea World parks, wanted the mammoth marine mammals because its efforts to obtain federal approval to capture more whales have been blocked, said Bruce Starling, a senior vice president. The whales, also known as orcas, are the star attractions at the Sea World parks, and Sea World wanted to add the Marineland whales to its breeding program.

Last September, Harcourt contacted Warwick International, a Hong Kong company that owned Marineland, to inquire about purchasing the whales but was rebuffed, Starling said in a telephone interview.

Harcourt then began negotiations to buy the entire park, he said.

The disclosure came after much speculation by officials in Rancho Palos Verdes, who have wondered aloud about Harcourt's motives and plans. After it was announced that Marineland had been sold to Harcourt, the Fortune 500 company angered city officials and animal lovers by issuing a series of contradictory statements over what it intended to do with the facility.

Harcourt said this week that it still does not know what it will do with the Marineland site, but the purchase comes at a time when the company is showing renewed interest in its main activity, book publishing, even as it enters a new field, real estate.

Shortly after the Marineland purchase, William Jovanovich, Harcourt's chief executive, said the park would not be closed and no animals would be moved to Sea World parks. Then, on Jan. 20, the company moved Orky and Corky to the Sea World in San Diego, during the night and without any public notice, but said Marineland would remain open with a pilot whale show.

On Jan. 29, the company said it was shutting down Marineland effective March 1, but announced Wednesday that yesterday was the park's last day.

"They seemed to say one thing and do something else," Rancho Palos Verdes City Manager Dennis McDuffie said in an interview.

In recent days, Harcourt--unusual among companies its size in that it has no investor-relations department or corporate public relations personnel--has attempted to soothe City Hall tempers by staying in touch with the city as it moved ahead with plans to close the park and transfer the animals to its other aquatic parks.

The company has also pledged to assist the park's 300 workers in finding new jobs, either within its own organization or elsewhere.

"Candidly, we have not begun our relationship with this community on the best foot," James Harris, a vice president with Harcourt's land company, told city officials at a council meeting last week. "But we will work together in the future."

Harcourt's purchase of Marineland comes at a time when the longtime book publisher has been expanding rapidly by "growing in three directions"--publishing, theme parks and insurance, according to Bert L. Boksen, an analyst who follows Harcourt for Raymond James & Associates, a brokerage firm based in St. Petersburg, Fla.

The firm, which Boksen characterized as "bottom-line oriented," is run by the 67-year-old Jovanovich, a miner's son who joined the company as a textbook salesman in 1947 and has been its chief executive for the last 32 years. The feisty Jovanovich divides his time between the company's Orlando headquarters and its offices in San Diego, where he has a home.

It has been Jovanovich who has led Harcourt's aggressive charge into the theme park business, starting in 1977 with the purchase of the Sea World parks in San Diego, Orlando and Aurora, Ohio. A fourth Sea World is under construction in San Antonio at a cost of $140 million and is scheduled to open in spring, 1988, according to Starling.

Additionally, the company, which moved its headquarters in 1981 from New York to Orlando, bought three more Central Florida theme parks for more than $44 million. Those parks, purchased between 1984 and 1986, include Stars Hall of Fame, Cypress Gardens and Circus World.

The company's move into the theme park business has paid off. In 1985, the parks represented 17% of the company's revenue and 31% of its profit. Overall, the company's profits have increased from $38.6 million in 1982 to $108.9 million in 1985.

Harcourt's success with theme parks had led some company observers and analysts to believe the company was moving away from its roots, publishing. But last October, the company, which over the years has published the works of such authors as Carl Sandburg and T. S. Eliot, purchased CBS Inc.'s book publishing operations for $500 million.

Will Boost Revenues

That purchase, which is expected to make Harcourt the largest U.S. publisher of elementary and high school textbooks, will boost the company's revenues this year to somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.6 billion, Starling said.

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