Former CEO Bob Chapek has broken his silence about his time leading the Walt Disney Company, speaking (sorta) for the first time since Disney’s Bob Swap™️ last November. This article shares some interesting anecdotes that have come out of the Chapek camp via a brand new interview with his colleagues, friends, and spokespeople.
Basically, this is the first time we’ve truly been treated to Chapek’s version of events in the Battle of the Bobs. We aren’t going to recap everything that has transpired thus far, but here’s a quick refresher. To start, Disney Fired CEO Bob Chapek and Rehired Bob Iger as CEO. That article recapped this saga dating back to 2020, covered why we weren’t surprised by this development.
Following that, Disney’s Battle of the Bobs: Why Chapek Was Fired, How Iger Returned & What’s Next offered more palace intrigue about the sequence of events since this summer when Disney’s board of directors renewed Chapek’s contract. It also covered Bob Iger’s new salary, how much Chapek was paid to go away, alternate candidates Disney’s board considered, who Iger fired on day one, restructuring changes he has planned, and more. Basically, the whole saga has been equal parts Succession and Game of Thrones…or a sequel to DisneyWar.
There have been a lot of subsequent developments in the Battle of the Bobs that have trickled out over the course of 2023, but the Disney drama to date has also been very much colored by Bob Iger bias. It’s been very obvious from almost all of this that the Iger camp was providing background and color commentary, while Chapek and co. kept pretty much completely silent. That, too, was nothing new. Even while Chapek was CEO, rumors of corporate governance seemed that they had been planted by Bob Iger’s team. So we really only had one side of the story.
Until today. In a wide-ranging article that clocks in at over 10,000 words, CNBC has chronicled the downfall of dearly-departed Disney CEO Bob Chapek, how he was set up to fail, and so much more. It’s an exceptional long-read that is very much worth your time if you savor this type of stuff. Rather than regurgitating it here, I’m going to focus on the details that I think are most interesting, amusing, and (frankly) funny.
We’ll start with Bob Chapek breaking his silence via a spokesperson. (Using a spokesperson and other sources is for good reason, as Chapek’s severance likely included an NDA and non-disparagement agreement. That’s likely why nothing in this article is directly attributed to Bob Chapek…even if he was the actual or indirect source.)
Sadly, the statement is as unfunny as you’d expect, but it’s the only portion of the article that’s on the record. (I’m going to choose to believe the rest.) “Bob is proud of the work he did in the course of his 30-year career at Disney, particularly during his nearly three-year run as CEO, steering the company through the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic, and setting the course for business transformation as he and his team took the disruptive yet necessary steps for business revitalization and long-term growth,” said a spokesperson for Bob Chapek.
According to the article, Bob Iger chose Chapek as his successor as Disney CEO because of Chapek’s integrity and business acumen, not his interest in Hollywood socializing. Chapek has the outward corporate demeanor of a Midwestern businessman — or, as one colleague jokingly put it, “a tuna salad sandwich who sits in front of spreadsheets.” (Our independent fact checking finds this to be accurate.)
Bob Chapek confided to a friend that his tenure at Disney was “about three years of hell,” defined by one overriding theme: frequent fear that Iger wanted his job back. (Fact check: also 100% accurate.) Iger has confirmed as much on countless occasions, openly telling peers and colleagues he returned to Disney to correct what he sees as one of the biggest mistakes of his career: choosing Chapek as CEO.
According to the article, Chapek earned Iger’s respect as a shrewd cost-cutter and a low-drama manager with integrity and operational expertise. Chapek cemented his reputation with Iger during the construction of Shanghai Disneyland, the $5.5 billion theme park that opened in 2016 after months of delays and going significantly over-budget. Iger and Chapek traveled to Shanghai together more than 10 times, and Chapek got the cost overruns and construction headaches under control.
Supposedly, Iger’s experience with Tom Staggs, who was unable to secure the board’s blessing to be CEO successor, is what prompted Iger to fasttrack Chapek into the CEO role. Iger reportedly told board members he didn’t think Chapek needed to audition for the role. This explanation certainly makes some degree of sense on the surface.
Iger would later tell others he mistook Chapek’s stellar operational track record for leadership skills–a striking admission for Iger, who prides himself on emotional intelligence and being a dealmaker. Other Disney executives have privately speculated that Iger chose Chapek because he wouldn’t rival him in either charisma, celebrity, or for more cynical reasons. (As discussed in the commentary, this is our perspective.)
Regardless of what else is fact or fiction, it’s clear that Iger didn’t know Chapek as well as he should have before choosing him as CEO. That much would become obvious via the well-documented conflicts that the two had starting in mid-2020 as the two competed almost openly for power and influence within the Walt Disney Company.
CNBC also spends considerable time and adds new context to conflict between the Bobs in 2020 and 2021, when Chapek was CEO and Iger was Executive Chairman and still more or less running the show. While a lot of the specifics and anecdotes here have never before been discussed, no truly new ground is covered.
None of this is going to surprise anyone who has paid any degree of attention to this saga. It’s all entirely believable, and exactly what you’d expect given what has come out previously. Some of this isn’t about Chapek at all and makes Iger look bad, with CNBC even noting that certain anecdotes had not leaked to the press previously. The only logical inference is that Chapek’s camp is the one sharing these stories now.
Some of this makes us mildly sympathetic to Chapek, but in other cases, Iger being hands on and taking the wheel, so to speak, is entirely expected given Chapek’s lack of Hollywood experience and his many unforced errors over those couple of years. If anything, perhaps Iger should’ve been more assertive and hands on. In any case, we’re going to gloss over this and fast-forward to the good stuff.
There are interesting anecdotes about both Bobs from corporate retreats at Walt Disney World, including a rare blunder by Bob Iger when he presented the “Tinkerbells” — spoof awards and roasting of the recipient. By contrast, there was a rare power move for Bob Chapek at the 2022 management retreat at Walt Disney World.
Chapek “invited” several executives to mandatory conferences for the bulk of the retreat. As a result, they missed out on most of the scheduled fun, such as interacting with the animals at Animal Kingdom and getting to ride new theme park attractions without the lines, according to CNBC.
For his part, Chapek attended only a few minutes of the first strategy session and instead spent most of his time at the retreat participating in activities that would showcase his personable side to employees. You might recall this as Chapek’s “Beard Era,” a period during his tenure as CEO during which he had facial hair because colleagues told him it “humanized” him. It’s a well known fact that robots cannot grow beards.
According to CNBC, several of the executives locked in the conference room found out Chapek was having fun petting a hippopotamus, causing their collective frustration with him to grow. After the meetings, a trio of executives who were openly bitter towards Chapek–presumably because they did not get to pet a hippopotamus–earned themselves the nickname “the mean girls” (a reference to the Lindsay Lohan movie of the same name) from Chapek because he felt they were ganging up on him.
Chapek started referring to those who took a gloomy view of Disney’s prospects as “Eeyores,” a reference to Winnie the Pooh that should be self-explanatory. These Eeyores were “appalled” that Chapek would not accept the dire state of Disney’s business. For Chapek’s part, he talked up ticket sales for Oogie Boogie Bash Halloween Party at Disneyland.
I swear I’m not making any of this up–it’s all in the article towards the end. And you know what…I believe it all. It’s one of those stories that’s just too incredible to be made up. There’s a certain understated stupidity to it that you just couldn’t fake.
Turning to commentary, I think we have to start with the hippopotamus in the room. Bob Chapek claims that his three years as Disney CEO were hell, yet he pet a hippopotamus during that timeframe as a direct result of power he wielded as Disney CEO. After consulting a panel of theologians, sociologists, Kilimanjaro Safaris drivers and other assorted experts, this blog has conclusively established that petting a hippopotamus as close as you can get to heaven on earth. Accordingly, these two statements of fact are impossible to reconcile.
I have never pet a hippopotamus. I’ve never admitted this publicly because, frankly, it brings great shame upon my family. But if I ever get the chance to pet a hippopotamus, I can assure you, you’ll hear about it. I won’t shut up about petting a hippopotamus. In every blog post from here to eternity, I’ll casually mention my hippopotamus-petting exploits in an attempt to make you jealous of me. And it will work–you’ll be very jealous, because petting a hippopotamus is unequivocally awesome. When I finally achieve this bucket list goal of petting a hippopotamus, I will tell people about it for decades. It’ll go on my résumé, and on my tombstone.
Bottom line, if Bob Chapek were a normal human with regular emotions, rather than a robot, all of the other complaints about being Disney CEO would fade away and he’d still be bragging about petting a hippopotamus to this day. Calling a job that empowered you to pet a hippopotamus “three years of hell” is some real “tuna salad sandwich who sits in front of spreadsheets” behavior.
Oh, and it was a job gave Chapek the chance to influence the happiness of millions of people the world over. It was also a role that paid Chapek hundreds of millions dollars–and that included a tidy sum for doing absolutely nothing in 2023, to simply go away. Obviously, no material riches or stewardship over the magic of Disney can compete with petting a hippopotamus. So really, this is a lot of ‘cry me a river’ material.
I feel like we should focus more about how Chapek pet a hippopotamus, but I suppose there’s more to the article than that. One final note about that–even though that detail didn’t make me the least bit sympathetic towards Chapek, it did make me respect him more. First of all, because he pet a hippopotamus, which automatically makes him a cool dude. (I don’t make the rules.)
Second, because he did it as the ultimate power move–being late for a meeting that he invite-mandated his subordinates to attend, while himself going out to pet a hippopotamus. As a Certified Business Expert™️, I can tell you for certain that there’s no better way to assert your authority than petting a hippopotamus, denying the same opportunity to your subordinates, and then rubbing it in their faces.
I can also understand why the other executives would be bitter about not getting to pet a hippopotamus. That’s like being passed up for a major promotion, but worse. Really can empathize with everyone in this story, and it completely explains the genesis of the “mean girls” and why the knives came out for Chapek in the end. He got what he deserved, but he also pet a hippopotamus and over $20 million in severance, so also he got the last laugh. If that’s what hell is, sign me up.
In terms of non-hippopotamus commentary, that anecdote actually encapsulates this whole saga. It’s hard to feel sorry for anyone here. I don’t buy Bob Iger’s claims of regret in choosing Chapek as his successor. Honestly, I also don’t believe it played out as is relayed in the article. It was obvious at the time even from the outside that something was amiss, and that there was more to the story when Iger abruptly retired for the first time and Chapek was hastily named CEO.
With the benefit of hindsight, it became crystal clear that COVID was the catalyst. And that was only a few weeks later. As more and more articles with inside info emerged in 2020 and 2021, it was even more obvious that Iger didn’t really want to retire, and wouldn’t have but for COVID. Chapek was chosen as a matter of expediency–to be the hatchet man who made unpopular and tough decisions to get the Walt Disney Company through a tough time before the triumphant return of Iger.
We “called” that long before last November, and weren’t the only ones. It very much seemed like that was how the table had been set–by Iger. Honestly, the bigger surprises to me are that Chapek didn’t seem to know his role and that he was able to get an extension out of the board. Aside from that, it really seemed like the stage was set well before 2022 for Disney to be “saved” by Bob Iger.
It’s also difficult to believe that Iger didn’t know what he was getting with Bob Chapek. It feels like an eternity ago, but it’s worth pointing out that Bob Chapek was well-known among Disney theme park fans and pretty widely disliked even before 2020. This is despite Chapek presiding over Parks & Resorts during an era of expansion. It’s also at odds with fan response to other executives–Bob Iger was fairly beloved at the time, as were the individual resort complex presidents and park VPs.
Some of this can be hand-waved away as fans having an outsider view of the company, and viewing things in simplistic and reductionist terms. As we’ve pointed out previously, it’s easy for fans to view things as a good/bad dichotomy, and executives as heroes and villains. But honestly, that’s kinda the point here. We all saw that Chapek lacked emotional intelligence, charisma and charm. How on earth could Bob Iger have missed it? The answer is that he didn’t. He knew, too.
With that said, this is also why it’s tough to be even remotely sympathetic towards Bob Chapek. I’m not going to belabor the incalculable x-factors he lacked here, as that’s something he previously discussed at length in Bob Chapek Did Not “Get” Disney. However, I will add that it wasn’t simply superficial. There are many other reasons, including substantive stories, about Chapek’s shortcomings and mistakes even before he became CEO.
All of this is the basis for our well-established and long held views on Chapek, and it’s inconceivable that we’re the only ones who have heard things. Suffice to say, there are valid bases for the differences in how Iger, D’Amaro, and other members of Disney leadership are perceived as contrasted with Chapek. It’s not merely a matter of them being better at manicuring their public image and Chapek not caring, I assure you.
We’ve already pointed out as much previously, but we actually think there are many things for which Chapek is unfairly maligned. The big one is Disney’s streaming losses, which peaked at over one billion dollars per quarter. It was always the plan for Disney+ to lose money as it chased subscriber numbers and growth over profitability. Chapek doubled down on this at the behest of Wall Street, and when he had no other options while the parks were closed and streaming subscriptions were exploding.
It was absolutely the right move at the time, and one that was rewarded by Wall Street…until it wasn’t. Anyone who was harsh about those billion-dollar streaming losses in 2022 either fundamentally misunderstood what was happening, or did understand, but had unfairly moved the goalposts.
That was just one of several Chapek-era decisions that has been unfairly vilified. He was forced to make a lot of tough and unpopular decisions because those were the only cards he had to play. Admittedly, I didn’t like a lot of those as a fan, but got them given the circumstances. But in the end, Chapek also made it very difficult to defend those decisions because he did such an abysmal job of that himself. His terrible messaging was a liability on several occasions, and he had a knack for making a bad situation somehow worse.
Ultimately, the CNBC article is an exceptional long-read, but it doesn’t change anything–just provides some curious color commentary. It also reiterates that there are no heroes or villains here, and that neither Iger nor Chapek are totally to blame or are totally blameless. Even after hearing Chapek’s side of the story via proxy, I’m still firmly on Iger’s side and am very glad that he returned. That remains my position even after reading all of this (which we more or less already knew), and living through the last several rocky months–which we knew (or should have known) were coming.
It’s probably obvious, but I mostly wanted to cover the latest twist in the Battle of the Bobs to share the anecdote about Chapek having fun petting a hippopotamus. (Hey, at least I’m transparent about my motivations!) That story ruled, is unexpectedly delightful, and contains multitudes. It really made me respect Chapek’s leadership skills much more.
What are your thoughts on Chapek getting to have fun petting a hippopotamus? Does that sound like the behavior of someone who endured three years of hell?! Anything to add about the timeline and events that precipitated Disney’s Bob Swap™️, replacing Chapek with Iger? Thoughts on how it went down, the board’s decision to renew Chapek’s contract instead of replacing him over the summer, or anything else covered here? Agree or disagree with the firing of Chapek? Hearing your perspective–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!