The Iger sanction: Disney board boots CEO in overnight power play

Source: Hot Air

The end of Bob Chapek’s run as CEO of Disney came so suddenly and ignominiously that employees at first thought the e-mail announcement was a hack or a joke. Late last night, the board at the House of Mouse gave Chapek the boot only a few months after extending his contract through 2024.

In his place, the board reinstalled former CEO Robert Iger, who never really left in the first place:

Walt Disney Co.’s board of directors on Sunday night replaced Chief Executive Bob Chapek with Robert Iger, the company’s former chairman and CEO who left the company at the end of last year, according to a company announcement.

“The board has concluded that as Disney embarks on an increasingly complex period of industry transformation, Bob Iger is uniquely situated to lead the company through this pivotal period,” said Susan Arnold, chairman of Disney’s board, in a statement.

“We thank Bob Chapek for his service to Disney over his long career, including navigating the company through the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic,” she added.

What happened? Plenty on the Right will claim that the Disney board grew Disenchanted (get it?) with Chapek after his political fight with Ron DeSantis, and that’s true to an extent, but not in the way conservatives might think. Chapek didn’t oppose DeSantis vigorously enough for Disney’s board, and certainly not for Iger, who made that publicly known at the time. Iger even went on CNN to publicly rebuke Chapek for not being activist enough:

Former Disney CEO Bob Iger is breaking from his successor on Florida’s recently passed “Don’t Say Gay” law.

Bob Chapek, Iger’s successor, initially opted not to speak out against the controversial law. But corporate executives should voice their opinions about ethical dilemmas, Iger recently told CNN+ host Chris Wallace.

“A lot of these issues are not necessarily political,” Iger told CNN+ host Chris Wallace. “It’s about right and wrong. So, I happen to feel and I tweeted an opinion about the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill in Florida. To me, it wasn’t about politics. It is about what is right and what is wrong, and that just seemed wrong. It seemed potentially harmful to kids.”

That apparent stab in the back raised eyebrows at the time, but the board later extended Chapek’s contract anyway. Tension had existed from the beginning between Chapek and Iger, however, as it was clear that Iger didn’t see his move to the board as a retirement. Two weeks after Iger stepped down, the pandemic hit, and Iger grabbed the reins back by mid-April 2020 — or so the New York Times reported:

No big media company is more dependent on its customers’ social and physical proximity than Disney, with its theme parks and cruise lines. Few have been hit harder by the pandemic.

And now, 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. …

In an emergency like this, Mr. Iger said, he had no choice but to abandon his plan to pull back.

“A crisis of this magnitude, and its impact on Disney, would necessarily result in my actively helping Bob [Chapek] and the company contend with it, particularly since I ran the company for 15 years!” he said in his email.

Chapek notably declined to participate in this NYT cheerleading for the man he kinda-sorta replaced. The article did make one prescient point:

One person close to the company said Mr. Iger assured Mr. Chapek that the extraordinary circumstances would be taken into consideration in the board’s evaluation of Mr. Chapek’s performance. But in reality, two hard, unpredictable years will determine if he can hold the job.

It ended up being more like two and a half years, but that was pretty darned close.

However, it’s not like Chapek was wowing Wall Street either. Iger may never have gone away, but Chapek struggled to fill what void Iger allowed to exist. Axios notes (as does the WSJ) that Chapek seems to have fumbled Disney’s streaming service, and that investors have grown unhappy over lower profit margins than expected:

The announcement sent shockwaves through Hollywood and Wall Street and was immediately lauded by investors who’ve grown frustrated with Disney’s performance under Chapek.

  • Disney’s stock saw its biggest drop in 21 years earlier this month after the company missed Wall Street expectations on revenues and profits for its final fiscal quarter of the year.
  • Amid recession fears, investors have grown skeptical that Disney’s linear television and parks divisions can offset widening streaming losses.
  • Last week, Chapek announced layoffs, a hiring freeze and other cost-cutting measures. Similar efforts are underway at rival entertainment companies.

Iger’s return seems to have lifted the spirits of investors, as stock futures in Disney went up 9% overnight, although it has a lot more ground to make up:

Shares of Disney popped in premarket trade Monday, the morning after the company announced it had replaced CEO Bob Chapek with Bob Iger.

Disney stock rose about 9% on Monday morning. As of Friday’s close, the company’s shares had fallen about 40% so far this year. …

Chapek took over just before the Covid pandemic severely cramped Disney’s business, shutting its theme parks and keeping its movies out of theaters for months. As Chapek helped the company weather that storm, with Iger still serving as chairman through December of last year, the company’s stock climbed to just above $200 at one point in 2021.

Since then, Disney’s shares have tumbled. They closed below $100 on Friday.

The price at the last close was just over $91. Whatever one thinks of Iger’s rather robust “retirement” in relation to Chapek, Iger’s replacement wasn’t getting the job done, at least not in terms of adding value to the company. Iger would be the natural choice to replace Chapek.

But for how long? The WSJ reports that at least one major investor group wants it to be as temporary as possible:

Disney has also faced pressure from multiple activist hedge-fund investors this year. Trian Fund Management LP earlier this month bought more than $800 million worth of Disney stock in the days following the company’s lackluster fiscal fourth-quarter earnings report, according to people familiar with the matter. The stake—under the 5% disclosure threshold—isn’t as large as Trian would like it to be and will likely grow, subject to market conditions, they said.

The activist fund, which was founded by Nelson Peltz, Ed Garden and Peter May, is seeking a seat on Disney’s board as it pushes the entertainment giant to make operational improvements and cut costs, according to the people. Trian has studied the business for a long time, they added.

Trian’s view is that Mr. Iger shouldn’t be back in control of the company, the people said.

Supposedly, the plan is to spend two years righting the ship and looking at the succession in parallel. That raises a few questions, not least of which is whether anyone of the talent level necessary to run a behemoth like Disney will take the job if it comes with Iger looking over his/her shoulder. Whether or not it was necessary in Chapek’s case, the next successor won’t want Iger looming over his every move.

It also raises the question about whether Iger’s the right person to build the succession. Chapek was Iger’s pick, after all. That only provides one data point, but it’s not a good one. That may be why Trian is said to be skeptical, and other investors might eventually agree.

Finally, this might settle a political question, too. Iger suddenly doesn’t have any free time on his hands, which means that he’s much less likely to decide to throw his hat into the presidential ring for Democrats next year. Even if Biden didn’t agree to retire on his own, he’s vulnerable to a primary challenge, and Iger would have been an attractive recruit for center-Left groups looking to expand the party’s reach in the suburbs and exurbs. They also might have loooved a chance to run Iger against DeSantis for a second round of fighting, this time with a better chance of a win. With a rescue of Disney under way, Iger no longer has that luxury, and Democrats won’t have that option.