How Bob Iger Remade the House That Walt Built
Even iconic brands need fixing from time to time. But instead of the easy fixes, Bob Iger played the long game by addressing Disney’s cultural issues head-on with a three-pronged strategy, making it a stronger, more profitable company with greater depth in its overall brand. The takeaway for CEOs is that, yes, culture—and persistence—matter.
July 1 2014 by JP Donlon
Few people appreciate that when Walt Disney died in 1966, he left a company that was very different from the one he started in 1923. Even Mickey Mouse had changed numerous times over the years. Today, Bob Iger presides over The Walt Disney Company, only the sixth CEO in its history, a very different company from the one Walt knew; but in important ways, it is very much the same. The technology and delivery may be different; but at its core, Disney remains an entertainment company that’s all about memorable characters and storytelling.
When he became CEO in October 2005, Iger faced a time of extended turmoil. The preceding five years had been marked by a hostile takeover attempt, a shareholder revolt, a board in conflict and years when performance fizzled. The once leading animation department hadn’t had a hit in years. The brand had become somewhat tarnished and employees no longer believed in Disney’s greatness. One of Iger’s first tasks was to make peace with dissident shareholders Roy Disney and Stanley Gold and to convince them to drop their lawsuit challenging the choice of Eisner’s successor.
Once this undertaking was behind him, Iger set about transforming Disney, surprising friend and foe alike, since transformative change was not expected from an insider. Having earned a degree in Television and Radio at Ithaca College, the Long Island native began his career as a weatherman in Ithaca, New York and moved up the ranks of network TV to become chairman at ABC. After Disney bought the network in 1996, he became Eisner’s heir apparent. As he outlines in the following interview at Disney’s Burbank studios, Iger quietly started to implement a different vision.
What Disney lacked, Iger sought to acquire. In 2006, the company bought Pixar Animation Studios in a $7.4 billion deal he personally negotiated with Steve Jobs. In 2009, he negotiated a similar deal for Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion. In 2012, he hit the jackpot by convincing George Lucas to have Disney take over Lucasfilm and the rights to Star Wars. (Star Wars VII is now in production.) In each case, Iger’s hands-off policy has allowed the individual units to continue being creative. Certainly, the recent blockbuster Frozen, based on a Hans Christian Andersen tale, which topped $1 billion at the box office worldwide, suggest that Disney is on a tear.