Bob Iger Returns to Running Disney; Expects Operational Changes & Leaner Company

DisneyWar is well overdue for a sequel or two at this point. The original book chronicled the rise and fall of CEO Michael Eisner, but didn’t really capture the ascension of CEO Bob Iger. There’s been plenty of material in the decade and a half since “Volume I” was published.

The negotiations and internal strife over acquisitions of Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, and 20th Century Fox would make for a fascinating read. As would the trials and tribulations of Walt Disney World’s NextGen initiative. Ditto the struggles in bringing Shanghai Disneyland to fruition.

Or perhaps Disney needs its own version of Succession, but as a Disney+ documentary. Start with the carefully choreographed process of making Tom Staggs the heir apparent to the throne, only to see his sudden departure. Or the ouster of John Lasseter plus the fallout and baggage therefrom. Then there’s the roller coaster career of Bob Chapek, who suddenly went from head of Parks, Experiences & Products to CEO when Bob Iger abruptly stepped down about a month ago. Now, add a new chapter to this saga…

To recap, Bob Iger stepped down as the Walt Disney Company’s CEO, and assumed the role of Executive Chairman. In that newly-established role, Iger was to direct creative endeavors, lead the Board of Directors, provide the full benefit of his experience, and work towards ensuring a smooth and successful transition for the next two years—through the end of his contract on December 31, 2021.

At the time, we offered extensive commentary about Bob Iger stepping down to the Executive Chairman role and Chapek ascending to the CEO position. We remarked that the news struck us as odd, and that there’s almost certainly more to this story than what had thus far been revealed. Now, we have some more of the story…

In an incredibly fascinating read, the New York Times is reporting that Bob Iger “thought he was riding into the sunset. Now he’s reasserting control and reimagining Disney as a company with fewer employees and more thermometers.” And that’s just the opening line.

It’s worth reading the entire article, but the most pertinent aspect to Walt Disney World fans concerns the likely Health Safety & Operational Changes Likely Coming to the Parks that we covered last week:

“The mood at Disney is ‘dire,’ said a person who has done projects with the company. ‘They’re covering the mirrors and ripping clothes.’

Mr. Iger, meanwhile, is trying to figure out what the company will look like after the crisis. One central challenge is to establish best practices for the company and the industry on how to bring people back to the parks and rides while avoiding the virus’s spread – using measures like taking visitors’ temperatures.

Mr. Iger also sees this as a moment, he has told associates, to look across the business and permanently change how it operates. He’s told them that he anticipates ending expensive old-school television practices like advertising upfronts and producing pilots for programs that may never air. Disney is also likely to reopen with less office space. He’s also told two people that he anticipated the company having fewer employees.”

Then there are the aspects about leadership and succession. The article paints a clear picture:

“Mr. Iger has effectively returned to running the company. After a few weeks of letting Mr. Chapek take charge, Mr. Iger smoothly reasserted control, BlueJeans video call by BlueJeans video call. (Disney does not use Zoom for its meetings for security reasons.)

The new, nominal chief executive is referred to, almost kindergarten style, as “Bob C,” while Mr. Iger is still just “Bob.” And his title is “executive chairman” – emphasis on the first word.”

The New York Times piece is a really fascinating read, but also an awkward one. Iger was quoted directly for the piece, so clearly Disney cooperated (but conspicuously declined to make Chapek available for comment). It has elements of palace intrigue, but that’s relatively minor. The overall tone and point is to establish Bob Iger as Disney’s former and future savior, as he struggles to steer the metaphorical ship to safer waters.

It does note that Bob Iger “has always carefully managed his image.” Yet, it does little to scrutinize claims that Disney’s succession plan was set into motion late last year and finalized even after the closure of Shanghai Disneyland and Hong Kong Disneyland, or as the company’s stock began to plummet. It oddly takes Disney’s claims about the timeline at face value.

I’m more skeptical. The Walt Disney Company is also very brand conscious, and “sudden and immediate shakeup” does not comport with that. When Tom Staggs was being groomed to take the mantle as CEO, it was carefully orchestrated. There were puff profiles in major publications, and establishing him as the future of the company was telegraphed and heavily foreshadowed.

Anyone who closely follows the business side of Disney knows that this is the company’s modus operandi. Disney is masterful at corporate communications and public relations, and never passes up the opportunity to take control of and manipulate the narrative. When Iger suddenly stepped down, there was an atypical chaos to the news, which is why (as the NYT notes) so many in Hollywood questioned what was the real story.

It’s hard to believe the Walt Disney Company’s senior management did not have some foresight about the economic dire straits on the horizon. Again, two of the company’s parks had already been closed for a month at that point, as had all theaters in the world’s second-largest economy.

Given that, it’s almost implausible that there had not been internal discussion of worst-case scenarios. What if the domestic theme parks had to modify or suspend operations? What if movie theaters temporarily closed? What if future productions shut down? What if ESPN had no live sports to air?

What seems most plausible is that Bob Iger expressed an intention to Disney’s board of directors to step down, and those plans were accelerated suddenly and dramatically after these potentialities were gamed out.

It would’ve been reasonably opportune timing for both Iger and Chapek–Iger leaves with his legacy of growth and success cemented, while Chapek takes the helm during a tough time, but also one beyond his control and with lowered expectations.

The twist, it would seem, is that no one foresaw the full toll the current crisis would take on the Walt Disney Company.

It’s not just a minor economic blip, but a confluence of circumstances that is heavily hitting multiple divisions and causing the company to hemorrhage more than $30 million per day.

In such a devastating scenario, Disney needs the steady hand of a venerable leader. That would explain why Bob Iger has reemerged to run the company–and why Disney cooperated with the New York Times. Bob Iger is fairly beloved, and his presence is reassuring to employees, investors, and fans alike. The NYT piece ends with a cliffhanger, leaving questions unanswered about who emerges as the Walt Disney Company’s next CEO after this is all said and done. We’d put even odds on it being Bob–and not with a C.

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What do you think of the reporting that Bob Iger has effectively returned to running the Walt Disney Company? Do you find this news reassuring? Think his steady hand and proven track record of success makes him better poised to handle the current crisis? Do you take the NYT piece at face value, or think there’s probably still more to the story? Thoughts on Bob Chapek being sidelined while remaining in the CEO role? Who would you like to see be Disney’s next CEO or Chairman of Parks, Resorts & Experiences? Any questions? We love hearing from readers, so please share any other thoughts or questions you have in the comments below!

77 Responses to “Bob Iger Returns to Running Disney; Expects Operational Changes & Leaner Company”
  1. Heather Hoeten April 21, 2020
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