There’s a common joke on various shows these days: a frustrated character says to another who has failed and flailed at some task, “You had one job and you didn’t do it.”
The board of Walt Disney said something similar in asking Bob Iger to replace his replacement as CEO of the media giant. In announcing Iger’s rehiring in a statement Sunday night, the board made it clear Iger’s most important job over the next two years is to find someone to permanently replace the storied 71-year-old executive, one of the most celebrated in American capitalism.
Having booted his choice of successor the first time, despite Bob Chapek’s broad experience across the company, Iger is expected to find a keeper this time, while also cementing the final component of his otherwise admirable legacy.
To start, it’s worth looking at the successor of another storied executive, Apple AAPL co-founder and two-time CEO Steve Jobs. The mercurial Jobs was pushed out the first time, but came back several years later to essentially save the company. When terminal illness forced Jobs to find a successor, he turned to a somewhat unlikely and little-known logistics wizard at the company named Tim Cook.
The decision puzzled some initially, but there’s no arguing with the results under Cook’s leadership the past 11 years. The company’s valuation skyrocketed from $300 billion (still about a third higher than Disney’s market capitalization now) to its current $2.4 trillion, an 8X increase.
Apple is the most valuable consumer company on the planet, and continues to deliver record-breaking numbers quarter after quarter despite the pandemic, supply-chain issues and more. And though Jobs’ creation, the iPhone, has been the bulwark of Apple’s vast success, Cook has presided over new product lines such as iPads and the Apple Watch, and pushed a massive expansion of subscription services that generates close to $80 billion a year in revenues.
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It’s also worth noting that in 2014, Cook was the first CEO of a major U.S. corporation to publicly come out as gay, and the company has been a champion of diversity and inclusion. Cook has also been a powerful corporate advocate for consumer privacy, though cynics will note that strong position has also served as a major marketing differentiator for Apple products from its ad-supported competitors on many fronts.
So who will be Bob Iger’s Tim Cook? It won’t be easy, as shown by the challenges that undid the seemingly well qualified and deeply experienced Chapek. What makes it particularly difficult is that Disney is so much more than just a media company.
During his first 15-year run, Iger acquired Pixar, Marvel and Star Wars, each for price tag of a few billion dollars that have since returned their investments many times over, and are crucial parts of the Disney+ streaming service.
The company already had broadcast network ABC and numerous owned-and-operators local stations, the Freeform cable network, sports franchise ESPN, the most lucrative cable network of the past few decades; and an extremely large and lucrative consumer products division.
In the year before the pandemic turned the theatrical exhibition business upside down, Disney’s movie studio set an all-time industry record for box office revenues, releasing blockbuster after blockbuster, including all-time champ Avengers: Endgame, as well as Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, the live-action The Lion King, Toy Story 4, Captain Marvel, Aladdin, and Dumbo
More recently, he engineered the $71 billion acquisition of most of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, which brought a controlling stake in streaming service Hulu and the FX network and its admirable slate of programming for grownups, among other assets.
Running all that would be a lot for anyone. But it’s only part of what Disney’s CEO must oversee. The rest includes four streaming services, theme parks and resorts on multiple continents, cruise lines, and a hugely lucrative consumer products division.
There are candidates in the company to succeed Iger, beginning with Dana Walden, the well-regarded movie executive who became chairman of Disney General Entertainment Co. this summer after Chapek summarily dismissed her long-time colleague Peter Rice in a 10-minute meeting.
Iger has signaled he will reorganize the controversial Chapek corporate structure that gave Walden that job, but whatever Iger comes up with is likely to give her more power, especially to greenlight new projects. How it plays out will be worth tracking for close watchers of the goings on in Burbank.
The New York Times NYT also mentioned as another potential candidate Josh D’Amaro, who succeeded Chapek in 2020 as chairman of Disney Parks, Experiences and Products.
It’s worth noting the Times also quoted anonymous sources saying neither Walden nor D’Amaro is “quite ready.” D’Amaro has worked at various Disney parks and resorts since 1998, but his bio suggests zero experience running movie studios, broadcast, cable or streaming networks, working with high-profile talent, or making acquisitions.
Iger has been seen, no doubt purposely, lunching this week with former Contending Successor Kevin Mayer, now a venture capitalist partnered with another former Contending Successor, Tom Staggs, according to Puck. Could either be back in the game?
Certainly the Hollywood scuttlebutt suggests Mayer as a possibility. He was part of the team that made many of those big acquisitions under Iger, including BAM, the streaming services provider whose technology undergirds all the company’s online operations.
Mayer also managed the extremely successful launch of Disney+ three years ago, helped by pre-sales that saw it debut with 10 million customers. When it was clear he wouldn’t get the top job, Mayer left, later accepting a short-lived job atop then-burgeoning social-media giant TikTok.
But in truth, nobody has the experience Iger has, across all that Disney is.
And there are reasons to wonder if Iger will be ready to let go the reins the second time around anymore than he did the first time, when he picked and groomed Chapek as successor beginning in 2018. Chapek had worked in home entertainment, and oversaw Parks & Resorts and consumer products for five years. He clearly had experience across several key parts of the company
Cowen COWN analyst Doug Creutz wrote to clients Monday, saying the Iger return “gives at least some appearance that Iger, and not the board, ultimately calls the shots at the company, and that Iger’s willingness to fully surrender power to a successor is low.”
He added, “We do not necessarily believe that a lack of leadership is Disney’s problem, and think the change will ultimately make a true transition of power to Iger’s (next) successor even more difficult.”
Iger is a tough act to follow, even for Iger. As I wrote Monday, for all its success, Disney faces a long list of very big challenges. Iger will be pressed to solve perhaps any of them in the two-year window the board has given him. But then again, he has just one job to do, and he needs to do it.