Big Fish CEO Jeremy Lewis steps down, founder Paul Thelen returns to role

Paul Thelen, back as Big Fish CEO

In a surprise shakeup at the top of Big Fish Games, Jeremy Lewis will step down as CEO and president of the Seattle-based casual games company. Paul Thelen, the company’s founder, will return to the roles, and Lewis will remain on the Big Fish board of directors.

The privately held company is considered a possible IPO  candidate. Big Fish posted sales of more than $180 million last year, up 30 percent, according to the company.

“Six years ago, I joined Big Fish Games’ founder, Paul Thelen, to partner with him to build Big Fish,” said Lewis in a news release announcing the change.

He continued, “Since then, we’ve grown the company organically through several life stages and emerged as a leading digital brand with strong momentum and huge continued potential. This is a natural point in our company’s progression for me to pass my responsibilities as president and CEO back to Paul, who will bring his characteristic entrepreneurial drive and creativity to the forefront.”

Jeremy Lewis remains on the board.

Lewis, a former managing director at Goldman Sachs, oversaw Big Fish’s $83 million financing in 2008. During his tenure, the company expanded to new platforms, including the iPad, where it became a top 10 publisher last year.

Thelen launched Big Fish’s first hit, Mahjong Towers, in 2002. He has been serving as the company’s chief strategy officer and board chairman.

“I want to thank Jeremy for his leadership and for the many milestones achieved on his watch,” said Thelen in the news release.

Thelen said Big Fish is on track for another record year of revenue this year, and he pointed ahead to its planned launch of a cloud gaming service, in addition to the expansion of its PC, Mac, Facebook and mobile gaming businesses.

  • Null

    It is certainly not unheard of for a founder to return to steward a
    company he founded – Schultz at Starbucks and Dell at his eponymous
    company come to mind. But it is not typical and no suggestive that
    things are as rosy in the executive suites as the press release would
    lead employees to believe.

    No doubt BFG has done very well to win the battle of the PC download
    business (competitors such as RealGames is in disarray, WildTangent has
    seen lots of turnover and changing focus over the years, and other once
    top portals and publishers are pale shadows of their former mid-2000s
    selves).

    Since 2008 the company has not been growing nearly as fast as it could
    have – Zynga came from nowhere, so to speak, to nail the FB space
    whereas BFG did not push it seriously even though BFG was ‘the’ casual
    games destination and it had its own online games that had lots of
    promise. Their audience went social but BFG clung to the PC download
    market that they controlled. BFG was slow to move.

    Enter mobile gaming and BFG did not aggressively pursue it at first
    though now they are aggressively moving into the Apple App Store.

    And now, with the spread of online gambling in a social game context and
    we see BFG stepping up their M&A activity, but it took the former
    BFG alumni who founded and sold DoubleDown Interactive to make and sell
    their company for a very large sum all in the span of 2-3 years.  In
    other words, BFG was slow to move again.

    Finally, seeing BFG bring in and then lose a CFO in less than 1 year is suggestive of something amiss within the top ranks.

    Question is, were many of these missteps due to the now departing CEO
    who ostensibly had managerial control as he went from being the COO to
    CEO during his tenure there or was the founder tightly controlling the
    company all along and keeping the CEO from being aggressive?

    It will be interesting to see what this high profile change of the guard
    will mean for the company moving forward. Will they be more decisive
    and aggressive to grow their business to billion dollar revenue levels -
    not impossible given their past growth rates and ability to deliver
    quality games and franchises – or lose their ground further to more
    nimble and aggressive ventures in mobile, social and online gambling.

    • Haley Barber

      You have made some EXCELLENT points! I believe the CEO was being tight-fist and annoyingly controlling. The aura around his photos shows a man who is deeply insecure and stubbornly passive-aggressive. Lewis comes across more solid! In many ways Thelen gives me the impression of being clandestine… surreptitious…not forthcoming! He used Lewis’s contacts to leverage his company. Without Lewis he would not have been able to woo such strong cash donors. OK… one would suggest that it was extremely savvy of Thelen to get Lewis to join him under the pretext of CEOsihp, and told him, “hey pal don’t forget to insure big pockets to make this company fly.” Clearly that was the only reason he brought Lewis onboard and it was a brilliant move. Remember he is quasi strategist. Knowing in the shadow of his mind he had every intention of dumping Lewis precisely when BFG’s Phoenix began its ascent from the ashes. Ruthless American greed! 

  • Guest

    It will be interesting to see if (and how) this impacts a bunch of the huge changes they had in the pipeline.

  • Game Lover

    A terrible human being has left the company. Finally. Cheers to Paul for making the right move. The world of gaming is a better place again.

  • Dark Tower

    Bad news, but not unexpected. Big Fish is the laggard of the Seattle games industry. Their brand and titles are lackluster. PC downloads are dying as the market moves to phone and tablet games. Double Down and Popcap have stolen all the local excitement and talent with their massive exits. And now Zynga has the #1 hidden object game, a genre which Big Fish used to completely dominate.

    There’s a lack of ‘killer instinct’ at the company, which isn’t helped by the rumor that large shareholders cashed out in the recent financing, instead of staying lean and hungry like their competitors.

    • Seattlevcinsider

      Recent financing?  Their last (and only) financing was in 2008, four years ago.  If you are speculating, at least get your facts straight 

    • Haley Barber

      Don’t agree with you entirely! Zynga management is atrocious! It’s only a matter of time before their shoe drops. This Games market is tired anyway.

  • Not Jeremy lover

    This is great news for the company and industry. A horrible human being can now leave Seattle! Let’s celebrate!

  • Happy Again

    When is the party to celebrate his return to New York. Our lives are better for him being gone.

    • Haley Barber

      What for an ass-hole, bitch-dog-loser are you? Duhhhhhh! You ain’t dat happy you skank!

  • Anzbmw

    Big fish are ripping customers off big time