Meet the New Boss

by Mark Goldhaber, staff writer

In a September 22, 2004 article following the surprise resignation announcement of Michael Eisner (“Eisner Is Resigning—What Now?”), I wrote: “The decision on selecting a new CEO was a pleasant surprise, and indicates thatwhether 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 slam–dunk 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 O– 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 industry–leading 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 one—eBay'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 and—perhaps more pointedly—the 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 8–K 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 CEO–elect 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 soon–to–retire 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 cars—his 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 heir–designate, 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 one–studio/one–park world of Uncle Walt any more. The ability to creatively direct all of the myriad brands and divisions is arguably much more than a one–man 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 well–chosen creative leader in each division—specializing in their division's product and coordinating at a corporate level—function 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 CEO–elect—less than two weeks later, in fact—was 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 long–term 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 cross–country 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 kick–off 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 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 e–mail sent to all staff the day that his selection as CEO–elect 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, and technologically.”

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 heavy–handed 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 that—if his position as CEO–elect isn't blocked by the SaveDisney lawsuit—Bob 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 mini–Walts.

It's too early to tell, but I'm not quite so pessimistic anymore.