Meet the New Boss
A look at CEOelect Robert Iger
Wednesday, May 11, 2005
by Mark Goldhaber, staff writer
In a September 22, 2004 article following the surprise resignation
announcement of Michael Eisner (Eisner
Is ResigningWhat Now?), I wrote: The decision on
selecting a new CEO was a pleasant surprise, and indicates that—whether
due to threats from Roy Disney, Stanley Gold, and the major pension fund
trustees or just confidence that they should do the right thing'the
succession process will not be a slamdunk for Iger, Eisner's anointed
choice.' OK, I was wrong about that.
When Disney announced in early January that they were permanently separating
the positions of chairman of the board and chief executive officer in
accordance with corporate governance best practices, it was seen as another
scrap tossed to investors to help ease Michael Eisner. Yet Chuck Oberleitner
of OMeon.com noted in a January 25 article entitled, The Return
of Chairman Eisner?, that this would actually scare off several
of the leading outside contenders for the CEO job, since they would no
longer have the possibility of adding chairman to their title, seen as
one of the carrots to draw them from their existing industryleading
jobs. In addition, they now had the looming possibility of Eisner taking
the chairman position after his retirement as CEO. This fear was bolstered
by his comments that he would have to look at the possibility of serving
as chairman if the board asked him.
In fact, after those outside candidates that were not scared off were
whittled down to just oneeBay's Meg Whitman (one of Disney's many
talented former execs frightened off by Eisner)Eisner himself sat
in on virtually the entire interview. Small wonder that Whitman wasn't
thrilled by the idea and quickly withdrew her name from consideration,
leaving Robert Iger as the last person standing.
The election of Iger to be the next CEO, however, came at a price for
Eisner. Eisner had recently become vulnerable because of the combination
of the SaveDisney movement andperhaps more pointedlythe extensive
forced divestiture of Disney stock by the Bass family, his closest allies
among major shareholders who, together with Eisner, had held a controlling
stake in the company. Perhaps the board sensed that without the votes
of the Bass family's shares, Eisner could no longer control their fate.
Perhaps they were fearful of SaveDisney running an alternate slate of
directors next year if they left open the possibility of Eisner's return.
In any case, the board told Eisner that they would elect Iger on one condition:
Eisner must publicly state that he would step down from the board at the
conclusion of his term and give up any thoughts of remaining on as chairman,
chief creative officer, or in any other capacity. In fact, it was stated
in the Securities and Exchange Commission's form 8K that the company
filed after the election of Iger.
However, that was apparently not enough for SaveDisney, as Roy E. Disney
and Stanley Gold filed a lawsuit this past Monday (May 9) seeking to invalidate
February's board election and March's selection of Iger on the grounds
that the board was disingenuous in their communications with shareholders
regarding the CEO search process, saying that had, Disney and Gold
known that the Company and a majority of the Board did not intend to stand
by their public statements about engaging in a bona fide CEO selection
process, [they] would have run an alternate slate of directors at the
2005 annual stockholders meeting. As this article went into the
publishing process, there was as yet no ruling on this suit.
Walt Disney Company CEO Michael Eisner (left), Mickey Mouse, and Disney
President Robert Iger attend the Disneyland 50th Anniversary press event
on May 4. Photo by Frank Anzalone.
So, for now, Bob Iger is the CEOelect of the Walt Disney Company.
But who is Bob Iger?
Robert A. Iger was born in New York City on February 10, 1951. He attended
Ithaca College, where he graduated magna cum laude (and of which he is
currently a trustee), and began his career in television as a weatherman
at a local station.
In 1974, Iger joined the ABC network as a studio supervisor in New York.
The next year, he moved to ABC Sports and began climbing through the ranks,
eventually becoming Vice President of Programming in 1987.
He continued his rise through the ranks, becoming executive vice president
of the ABC Television Network in 1988, and became president of ABC Entertainment
a year later. In 1993, Iger was promoted to president of the ABC Television
Network Group, and added the title of president and chief operating officer
of ABC the following year. By the time the Walt Disney Company bought
Capital Cities/ABC in 1996, Iger was considered the designated successor
to the company's soontoretire CEO, Thomas Murphy.
After Disney bought ABC, Iger was kept on to run the network. In 1999,
he would be named chairman of the ABC Group and president of Walt Disney
International. In his international role, his job was to create a functional
organization while expanding the Disney brands around the globe.
In 2000, Iger was named president and chief operating officer of The
Walt Disney Company, as well as a member of the Walt Disney Company Board
of Directors and its Executive Management Committee. He continued to be
responsible for ABC.
Iger's oversight of ABC was somewhat questionable, with the network deciding
to pass on Survivor (twice), CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and The Apprentice.
He also forced out Lloyd Braun and Susan Lyne, who had championed the
ABC hits Lost and Desperate Housewives over his (and Eisner's) objections.
It remains a question mark how many of the bad decisions were his and
how many he ordered at Eisner's behest.
On the personal side, Iger is a fitness buff who wakes up at 4:30 a.m.
to begin his workouts. His fashion tastes run to the expensive side, both
in suits and carshis car of choice is a Porsche. He is a technology
buff, and is said to spend some time surfing the Internet daily. Iger
married television journalist Willow Bay in 1995. They have four children.
In light of the circumstances of Iger's appointment to the top spot,
and with consideration to his status as Eisner's heirdesignate,
the Disney fan community has been considering him with a great deal of
fear and trepidation, myself included. But I would like to propose a radical
notion that might be considered heresy: What if creative leadership is
no longer a requirement for being successful at running The Walt Disney
Company in the 21st century?
Think about it. There are multiple movie studios, multiple television
networks, theme parks, a cruise line, a merchandising behemoth, publishing
houses, and more. It's not the onestudio/onepark world of
Uncle Walt any more. The ability to creatively direct all of the myriad
brands and divisions is arguably much more than a oneman job.
In that article back in September, I suggested that Disney needed two
people at the top: One to handle business, and another to handle creative.
Iger's appointment has led me to consider an alternative. Does the creative
direction for each division need to come from one man? Or can a wellchosen
creative leader in each divisionspecializing in their division's
product and coordinating at a corporate levelfunction even better,
more nimbly and more effectively, especially if he brings in a creative
person as president?
I think that if the business man at the top understands the
product and the image, trusts the creative leaders and supports their
decisions, it can work. In fact, Iger has already made a major step in
that direction. One of the first moves in the wake of Iger's designation
as CEOelectless than two weeks later, in factwas the
disbanding of the Corporate Strategic Planning Division, a creation of
Michael Eisner. The press release announcing the change stated that the
strategic planning function would be pushed down to the individual divisions.
Iger stated that, This new structure will create efficiency with
accountability and empower our business unit leaders in their ongoing
efforts to create new, differentiated and compelling entertainment experiences
that will ultimately generate longterm shareholder value.
In other words, he wanted to let each division be responsible for deciding
what was a good project, without the Strategic Planning Division (referred
to by many inside the Mouse House as the Business Prevention Department)
interfering and planning the spontaneity and creativity out of each project.
Other signs that Iger gets it include his appearance at Walt
Disney World last Wednesday, between his appearances in California on
Tuesday night and Thursday morning. Iger, along with Parks and Resort
President Jay Rasulo, flew crosscountry to meet with the media and
spend some time in the Magic Kingdom. They greeted guests and even took
photos for them so that their entire parties could be in the picture.
It could certainly be argued that these events were staged, but it still
is an indication that Iger understands what the brand is about and that
he supports it.
Want more proof? Steve Jobs is already talking about how nice his conversations
with Iger have been, though they haven't gotten around to actually negotiating
a new contract for Pixar yet. In his introductory remarks at the Happiest
Homecoming on Earth kickoff at Disneyland last Thursday, the first
people that Iger mentioned were the cast members (the employees of the
Walt Disney Company). He has consistently mentioned that the cast members
are a very important resource for the company. Compare that to Eisner's
comment, that trained monkeys could do the job of theme park employees.
And Jim Hill reports in his May 6 JimHillMedia.com article, Why
For?, that Iger has actually invited Roy E. Disney to return to
Disneyland to help emcee the park's 50th birthday party on July 17. Iger
seems to understand what is important to the company, and is actually
taking steps to accomplish what he thinks is important.
And consider this quote from an email sent to all staff the day
that his selection as CEOelect was announced: As I look ahead,
I see an era of continued energy, enthusiasm, imagination, and, of course,
magic. To translate this vision into reality, I am committed to furthering
an atmosphere of creativity, a spirit of innovation, and an environment
in which teamwork thrives. Collectively, we have been handed an extraordinary
opportunity to continue Disney's great legacy with deep respect
for our heritage and passion for our future as we grow creatively, globally,
Where Michael Eisner has been known for running roughshod over anyone
whose power or prestige seemed in danger of eclipsing his own, Iger has
been known as a team player. Many people would dispute that fact, pointing
to several heavyhanded moves at ABC. While I don't dispute those
facts, I'd like to point out an exchange between Iger and Susan Lyne documented
in James E. Stewart's book, DisneyWar:
Lyne: The Bob Iger who hired me, who got me to ABC, who was trained
and guided by Tom Murphy, is gone.
Iger: You don't know how hard it is to do the job that I have.
Working for Michael is very different from working for Tom.
This would seem to indicate that, while he would have liked to respond
differently, he was being a team player and carrying out the wishes of
his boss, Michael Eisner. So perhaps, freed of the micromanaging, overly
competitive and bullish oversight of Eisner, Iger can once again concentrate
on team building.
Now, mind you, this doesn't mean that it is a certainty thatif
his position as CEOelect isn't blocked by the SaveDisney lawsuitBob
Iger will be the company's savior and all will be bright, shiny, and perfect
under his leadership. There's no guarantee of anything. But I'm starting
to think that maybe he understands what needs to be done, and will let
the creative people make the creative decisions. Maybe he'll just make
sure that everyone is working together correctly and nurture an army of
It's too early to tell, but I'm not quite so pessimistic anymore.
Thoughts, questions, or comments? Contact Mark here.