By Frank Pallotta, CNN Business
The 71 year-old newly unretired executive has to make the company’s costly streaming business profitable, jump start its floundering stock price and restore the magic in Disney’s culture after Bob Chapek’s tumultuous tenure. And he’s got to do it in just two years.
When Iger stunned the media world last week by returning to the company he led for 15 years, the announcement came with a mandate. Disney said that he not only has to “set the strategic direction for renewed growth” at the company, but also has “to work closely with the Board in developing a successor to lead the Company at the completion of his term.”
The latter is arguably more difficult. There’s no clear heir apparent to Disney’s media kingdom. And despite being one of Disney’s most successful CEOs, Iger —who previously pushed back a planned retirement before stepping down and anointing Chapek in 2020 — doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to succession plans.
Looking through Disney’s executive ranks, there are a lot of contenders, but it’s hard to say who is the best fit. The job has a big learning curve for whoever takes it and it’s not even two weeks into Iger’s new tenure. He just stepped foot on Disney headquarters Monday.
But someone has to take over. That person could of course come from outside the company, but here’s a list of some potential contenders currently at Disney.
Let’s start with Josh D’Amaro, chairman of Disney’s Parks, Experiences and Products, who took over that role from Chapek when he became CEO. D’Amaro has been with Disney since 1998 and currently leads one of the company’s core businesses.
D’Amaro is well known (and even beloved) by Disney park enthusiasts. This helped him avoid a lot of the criticism regarding the parks, including rising prices, that fans aimed at Chapek.
But Iger and the board may be hesitant to select another chairman of Parks to head the entire company given the experience with Chapek.
Alan Bergman, chairman of Disney Studios Content, has been with the company since 1996 and was president of Disney Studios from 2005 to 2019.
The run of blockbusters from Marvel, Pixar and Star Wars over the last decade has his imprint on it, but can Bergman bring that success to the broader company?
Disney’s problems are bigger than just producing quality and creative content right now (even though Iger thinks that is very important), so Bergman may not be the best fit.
Christine McCarthy, the company’s Chief Financial Officer, has been with Disney since 2000, and could be a candidate if Iger and the board are looking for someone more financially focused.
What Disney needs more than anything right now is to get its stock price back up, and that means making its streaming business profitable. The company also may want a leader who can look holistically at the cost structure of the entire company.
But as Matthew Belloni pointed out in Puck this week, McCarthy has “no creative experience,” and was “Chapek’s right-hand for three years.” That could hinder her chances rather than help.
Jimmy Pitaro & Dana Walden
There also are two executives from Disney’s TV side: Jimmy Pitaro, chairman of ESPN and Sports Content, and Dana Walden, chairman of Disney General Entertainment Content.
Maybe Iger sees the future in one of these two since he himself came from the TV side at ABC, and Pitaro and Walden have both proven to be steady leaders in their roles.
But Pitaro, who has been at Disney since 2010, leads ESPN, which is losing cable subscribers, and was the focus of concern from Dan Loeb — an activist investor who has argued that the company should spin off the sports network. (Loeb eventually changed his mind.)
As for Walden, she came over during the Fox acquisition in 2019 and took on her current role after Peter Rice — a high ranking Disney executive — was ousted in June, so she hasn’t been at Disney for very long. The other candidates have been seeped in Disney’s culture much longer.
The next Bob Iger
Is it even possible to replace Bob Iger?
That will be one of the most pressing questions of his next two years. It’s tremendously difficult to find someone to lead Disney because it’s not really like any other company.
Disney is a lifestyle brand, beloved by millions around the world, and it sets the tempo for the entire media industry.
Since its 1923 founding, Disney has had a fair share of charismatic leaders who could mix magic with money-making even in the shadow of its founder and namesake.
Now, the board and Iger have to find someone who can not only push the company into its next 100 years, but also maintain and build on Iger’s legacy.
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