Bob Iger

Robert A. “Bob” Iger is Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of The Walt Disney Company.  In this lofty role, Bob is the leader of the world’s largest media company, and steward of some of the most well-known, respected and beloved brands around the globe. In June 2017, The Hollywood Reporter placed Bob at the top of their annual ranking of Hollywood’s most powerful people. 

We first met in the mid-1980’s when Bob was a young executive at ABC Sports working for the legendary sports producer and executive, Roone Arledge. Bob later served as President of ABC Entertainment from 1989-92, and it was during his time in this position that we worked together on a made-for-television movie about the crash landing of United DC-10 Flight #232 in Sioux City, Iowa on July 19, 1989. The production had a wonderful cast that included Charlton Heston, Richard Thomas, James Coburn, Philip Baker Hall, and Tom Everett. With Bob’s assistance, we hosted a world-premiere screening in Sioux City for the real-life flight crew led by United Capt. Al Haynes, the first responders (which included representatives from the 185th Air National Guard and local fire/police/rescue crews), the two local hospitals, and dignitaries such as Governor Terry Branstad (see his WINNER’s profile) and Congressman Fred Grandy. The movie was presented on ABC during the February sweeps on February 24, 1992 and played to a large viewing audience. The screenplay was originally titled A Thousand Heroes but it was changed – over my strong objections – to Crash Landing: The Rescue of Flight 232. Bob would acknowledge to me some years later that the original title “was a lot better!”

Bob’s rise through the ranks at ABC and Disney in the years to follow was nothing less than meteoric. After his stint overseeing the Entertainment division, he was promoted to President of the entire ABC Television Network. Bob was later named to Disney’s senior management team in 1996 as Chairman of the Disney-owned ABC Television Group, and in 1999 added the additional role of President of Walt Disney International, having overseen the merger between Cap Cities/ABC and The Walt Disney Company. Disney appointed Bob to the position of President and COO in January, 2000 and on March 13, 2005, it was announced that he would succeed Michael Eisner as CEO.

Since taking over as CEO, Bob’s strategic vision for The Walt Disney Company has focused on three fundamental pillars: 1) generating the best creative content possible, 2) fostering innovation and utilizing the latest technology, and 3) expanding into new markets around the world. I can personally attest to how he has always held a forward-looking view of the future. On April 6, 1998, Bob gave the opening keynote address at the annual National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Show in Las Vegas.  Years later, in 2012, I came across a copy of that old NAB speech and sent it to Bob. It was fun to remind him how prescient and genuinely “futuristic” his remarks were, and point out just how many of his predictions involving program platforms, the computer and internet, and other technological changes had actually come true! One key passage vividly demonstrates the vision he had shared with the NAB audience more than a decade earlier: “The multitude of decisions we face today creates quite a challenge to any long-term planning process. None of us knows exactly where we’re going, but we can’t afford to stand still. The changes affecting our business over the past decade have been much more sweeping and consequential than most of us appreciate. Today’s viewer bears no resemblance to the viewer of yesterday, and the changes over the next ten years will be so vast that no one can predict with any assurance where the business is headed. If we continue to ignore the change, or attempt to conduct business as usual, we won’t be conducting much business at all. Don’t get me wrong. I’m still an optimist about the television business. I’m just not a cheerleader for the status quo.” 

More recently in an April 2018 interview for Vogue magazine, Bob said: “Disney is an interesting place because we’ll be 95 years old this October, and we’re striving to maintain relevance in a world that doesn’t look anything like the world that the brand was created in. It doesn’t even look like the world the brand existed in five years ago.” Looking back to 2005 when he was named CEO, Bob was the perfect choice to lead Disney through the concomitant changes at the center of the digital world in which we now live. 

Bob has built on Disney’s copious history of compelling and memorable storytelling through a series of strategic acquisitions, starting with the one involving Pixar Animation Studios that was announced in January 2006. The $7.4B all-stock transaction made Steve Jobs the largest Disney stockholder, and also earned him a seat on their board. Disney’s relationship with Pixar had been strained under Bob’s predecessor, Michael Eisner, and news of the deal was well received by the vast majority of stockholders. Among those pleased with the announcement was Roy E. Disney, the brother of the great Walt Disney himself, who had been somewhat critical in the past while Bob was working under Eisner. Roy issued this statement after the Pixar deal was announced: “Animation has always been the heart and soul of The Walt Disney Company and it is wonderful to see Bob Iger and the company embrace that heritage by bringing the outstanding animation talent of the Pixar team back into the fold. This clearly solidifies The Walt Disney Company’s position as the dominant leader in motion picture animation and we applaud and support Bob Iger’s vision.” That landmark deal was followed by others with Marvel Entertainment in 2009 and Lucasfilm in 2012. But the one that topped them all was the legacy-defining deal announced in December 2017 to acquire most of the assets of 21st Century Fox in a bid originally valued at $52.4B in stock. Comcast (whose division NBCUniversal includes Universal Pictures and DreamWorks) counter-offered in June 2018 with a $65B all-cash proposal which led to a bidding war between the two companies. In the end, Disney would prevail with a $71.3B combined cash and stock offer. When the acquisition is completed in 2019, many of Hollywood’s most valuable companies and intellectual properties – Disney, ESPN, ABC, Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, 20th Century Fox film and TV studios, Hulu – will be together under the Disney banner and control in a way that has the potential to reshape the entertainment business. It creates a powerful force to be reckoned with not only in this country but globally as well, with strong assets throughout Asia and Europe.

In a 2015 interview, Bob said that buying Pixar “was the single most important thing that has happened to me in the 10 years I’ve been in this job.” It was clear from the outset of Bob’s fence-mending with Pixar that his relationship with Steve Jobs was special, and one that would serve both companies well. This point was reaffirmed when Steve became Disney’s largest shareholder and a key board member. In August 2011 it was announced that Steve would be stepping down from his CEO position at Apple due to health problems related to a pancreas neuroendocrine tumor. I dropped Bob a note a short time later which, in part, read, “I don’t know Steve. But I do know you well enough to know that the two of you would ‘mesh’ and otherwise work extremely well together…I hope that his health allows him to, indeed, lead Apple as chairman and also stay on your board for many years to come.” Bob, who is renowned for his extraordinarily prompt replies, wrote me back the very same day to say, “(Steve) is truly unique, which I realize is not saying anything new, but it has been an incredible privilege to work with him and to get to know him these past 5 years. He’s going through hell right now, but I’ve never seen anyone fight as hard as he does.” Sadly, Steve Jobs would lose that fight just a few months later when he passed away on October 5, 2011. The respect that Steve and his successor, Tim Cook, had for Bob became clear the following month in November 2011 when Bob was appointed to serve on the board of Apple, Inc.

Without question, my most meaningful and gratifying experience with Bob involved Blank Children’s Hospital in Des Moines and their special connection to The Walt Disney Company that dates back 75 years. The founder of the hospital, A.H. Blank, and Walt Disney were personal friends and prior to its opening they discussed some artwork to cheer up the children. “We shall be very happy to do all we can to make the murals in the hospital something of which we can all be proud,” Disney wrote in a letter to Blank, who founded the hospital to honor of his late son Raymond. So when the hospital opened in 1944, artwork designed by Walt Disney and painted by some of his top artists at the time was installed. I sent Bob a note in January 2017 which said, “You may recall me mentioning to you over the years the unique connection that Walt Disney himself had to Blank Children’s Hospital in Des Moines. It would be a timely and wonderful gesture to update the late, great Walt Disney’s gift! Blank has a new pediatric emergency department with a wall or two that would be the ideal place for a new watercolor mural(s) featuring more contemporary Disney and Pixar films/characters. Is that even a possibility?” Bob replied a short time later with the good news: “We support numerous hospitals for children and I am certain we can fulfill this request. I will have our philanthropy people follow through with you on it.” And so they did. 

Over the next year, the Disney Corporate Citizenship and Blank Children’s Foundation teams worked diligently to come up with a lay-out and location for new, original artwork. After considering more than a half-dozen design possibilities, they settled on a silhouette version consisting of 110 characters and objects from the extensive Disney and Pixar catalog: Dumbo, Zootopia, The Jungle Book, Lady and the Tramp, Bambi, Mulan, Alice in Wonderland, Winnie the Pooh, Cars, A Bug’s Life, Wreck-It Ralph, Tangled, Ratatouille, Monsters Inc, Pocahontas, Toy Story, Finding Nemo, The Lion King, Lilo & Stitch, Big Hero 6, Cinderella, Brave, Hercules, The Aristocats, The Little Mermaid, Frozen, Pinocchio, Aladdin, Up, Wall-E, Moana, Beauty and the Beast, and Bolt. And, of course, Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Chip and Dale, Goofy, and Pluto were also prominently featured. Made of adhesive vinyl, it measures 46 feet wide and 8 feet tall. On the opposite hallway wall, a similarly sized mural featuring characters from the Disney classic, Peter Pan, was installed. The final product far exceed everyone’s expectations. 

In April 2018, Bob Iger came to Des Moines to tour the hospital, see the original artwork, and personally help unveil and dedicate the new artwork. Bob was thrilled to see Walt’s original murals for the first time saying, “There’s something very vivid about them. The characters pop off the walls.” It was an honor for me to later introduce Bob at the dedication ceremony, and talk about the initiative he had announced one month earlier involving The Walt Disney Company’s commitment to dedicate more $100 million in company resources to children’s hospitals around the world over the next five years. My introduction also provided me the opportunity to discuss our long association and friendship, and point to his many accomplishments as the leader of one of the world’s most well-known and admired companies. In his dedication remarks, Bob said, “We really have a chance to actually follow in Walt’s actual footsteps to build on something that he himself had a hand in creating, and that makes this hospital, this visit and this day very special.” He later added, “Being able to bring a little of Disney’s values into a hospital where children and families are experiencing times of incredible stress and anxiety is a great thing.” At the conclusion of his remarks, Bob surprised the hospital executives, doctors, nurses and other invited guests with an announcement that The Walt Disney Company, in addition to the new artwork and other donated products and services, would be making a cash donation of $100,000 to Blank Children’s Hospital. It was a very special day, indeed. 

During Bob’s tenure, The Walt Disney Company has been consistently recognized as one of the “Most Reputable Companies” by Forbes, one of the “Most Admired Companies” by Fortune, one of the “Most Respected Companies” by Barron’s, and as “Company of the Year” by Yahoo Finance (2013). In March 2018 the Harris Poll on “Corporate Reputation” that quantifies reputation ratings for the 100 most visible companies in America saw Disney climb to No. 5 in their rankings which confirm that “consumers value brands that are standing by their values, building deep community relations and fueling momentum in science, health and education.” That strong showing also explains why Bob has been named one of Fortune’s “25 Most Powerful People in Business” (2006, 2007), one of the “Top Gun CEOs” by Forbes (2009), one of the “Best CEOs” by Institutional Investor (2008, 2009, 2010, 2011); MarketWatch “CEO of the Year” (2006); and “CEO of the Year” by Chief Executive magazine (2014). 

When asked about the best advice he’d ever received about power, Bob told The Hollywood Reporter the following: “Always be humble. No matter how successful you are or how good the world thinks you are, it’s very important not to let that go to your head.” Humility has never been an issue for Bob, as he’s remained remarkably grounded and self-aware. It’s always a pleasure to occasionally see him at network meetings, the annual Upfronts (“upfront” is a term used in the television industry to describe a weeklong series of presentations by network executives to advertisers and the trade press – Ed.), industry dinners and gatherings, and various award shows. One of the more memorable such occasions was the 80th Academy Awards in February 2008. It was an honor to attend the Governor’s Ball afterwards where Bob and his wife, Willow Bay, hosted the Disney tables with special guests Harrison Ford & Calista Flockhart (they would later marry in 2010); Billy Ray, Tish & Miley Cyrus (Miley was the teen idol star of Hannah Montana on the Disney Channel at the time); and Kristin Chenoweth (who had performed the Oscar-nominated “That’s How You Know” from Enchanted hours earlier during the Oscars broadcast).          

George Stephanopoulos (see his WINNER’s profile) made reference to Bob’s “affable rigor” in his answer to a question about the business leader he most admired. That’s a good description of one of Bob’s many fine attributes, but he also possesses an unrelenting determination to control events rather than react to them. To be “fearless” as he put it in a June 2015 interview in which told Daniel Miller of the Los Angeles Times, “I just was built with an innate ability to not let fear guide me in how I run my life. You can look at all the numbers in the world, but at some point somebody…needs to dig down deep, search his soul, analyze or get in touch with his own or her own instinct, and decide.” This insight and winning advice should resonate with aspiring leaders of any organization.

In March 2017, the Disney board of directors announced that they had extended Bob’s contract through July 2019. Orin C. Smith, Disney’s lead independent director, said this at the time: “Mr. Iger has led the Walt Disney Company to unprecedented success during his 11 years as CEO, driving Disney to new creative heights, expanding the company’s global reach, fostering technological innovation, and delivering year-after-year of record financial results.” During a private meeting in Bob’s office in July 2017 we broadly discussed the possibility of his making a presidential bid in 2020. He had just recently returned from a vacation with Barack and Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey and other close friends, and it was obvious that such a run had been the the subject of some late night discussions. We talked about the unique nature of the Iowa Caucuses, and the timing of a prospective campaign relative to his planned July 2019 departure from Disney. I left his office convinced that Bob’s political ambitions were as serious as they were sincere. Any and all such plans came to a halt when, in a move tied to the 21st Century Fox announcement, Bob agreed to further extend his contract with Disney. He said, “I am going to stay until the end of 2021. You know, I’ve got one of the greatest jobs in the world…(the proposed Fox deal) makes it even more exciting and I’m looking forward to the future at Disney.” A profile in the May 2018 issue of Vogue magazine did offer some insight into his political deliberations: “The thought I had was coming from the patriot in me, growing up at a time when we respected our politicians not only for what they stood for but because of what they accomplished. I am horrified by the state of politics in America today, and I will throw stones in multiple directions. Dialogue has given way to disdain. I, maybe a bit naively, believed that there was a need for someone in high elected office to be more open-minded and willing to not only govern from the middle but to try to shame everyone else into going to the middle.” Oprah Winfrey, someone rumored to have presidential ambitions of her own, said she’d have gone door to door to campaign for Bob. “I really, really pushed him to run,” Oprah told Vogue in that same article. I can relate to Oprah, having done the same in my July 2017 meeting and on several occasions thereafter. Our country’s loss will be Disney shareholders’ gain. 

Bob Iger is a WINNER whose corporate office is appropriately located at The Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, a location made possible by revenues from the 1937 release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. His managerial focus and leadership style builds upon the history and heritage of the “wonderful” in the Wonderful World of Disney, and inspires the continuing sense of “magic” in the Magic Kingdom.  The challenge of maintaining the creative spirit and legacy of the iconic Walt Disney could not be in better hands.

Sources

Speech –

Iger, Robert A. (April 6, 1998) “National Association of Broadcasters Annual Conference Keynote Address” ABC Affiliate Relations

Magazine –

Cummings, Carrie (November 2, 2015) “People: 1995 – Steve Jobs” AdWeek

Newspaper –

Lawhon, Danny (April 12, 2018) “110-character Disney mural unveiled by CEO Iger at Blank” The Des Moines Register

Press Release –

The Walt Disney Company (March 25, 2018).  “Disney Ranks High in Harris Poll on Corporate Reputation” [Press Release] Retrieved from www.thewaltdisneycompany.com

Websites –

Miller, Daniel (June 6, 2015).  “How Robert Iger’s ‘fearless’ deal-making transformed Disney” Retrieved from www.latimes.com

Mouse, Head (October 27, 2015). “bob iger enters broadcasting & cable hall of fame” Retrieved from www.etckt.com

Belloni, Matthew (June 22, 2016). “In-Depth With Disney CEO Bob Iger on China Growth, ‘Star Wars’ Reshoots and Political Plans: “A lot of people have urged me to run.””  Retrieved from www.hollywoodreporter.com

Rainey, James (October 19, 2016).  “How Disney Companies Like Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm Maintain their Creative Cultures” Retrieved from www.variety.com.

Rainey, James (November 22, 2016).  “Bob Iger on Shanghai Disney, Parting With His Chosen Successor, and His Pursuit of Perfection” Retrieved from www.variety.com

Littleton, Cynthia (November 22, 2016). “Bob Iger’s Early Career at ABC Signaled His Future Success at Disney” Retrieved from www.variety.com

Debruge, Peter (November 22, 2016).  “Disney’s Pixar Acquisition: Bob Iger’s Bold Move That Reanimated a Studio” Retrieved from www.variety.com

Trainer, David (January 25, 2017). “Why Disney Will Be The Mouse That Roars In The Stock Market” Retrieved from www.forbes.com

Littleton, Cynthia (March 23, 2017).  “Bob Iger Extends Contract as Disney CEO Through Mid-2019” Retrieved from www.variety.com.

Brower, Alison (editor) and THR Staff  (June 21, 2017). “The THR 100: Hollywood Reporter’s Most Powerful People in Entertainment” Retrieved from www.hollywoodreporter.com 

Rutenberg, Jim (October 8, 2017). “For Disney’s Iger, an Unlikely Political Turn”  Retrieved from www.nytimes.com

Barnes, Brooks (December 14, 2017). “Disney Makes $52.4 Billion Deal for 21st Century Fox in Big Bet on Streaming” Retrieved from www.nytimes.com

Keneally, Meghan (December 14, 2017). “Disney chief Bob Iger signals he won’t run for president in 2020”  Retrieved from www.abcnews.go.com

(March 7, 2018). “The Walt Disney Company commits more than $100 million to bring comfort to children and their families in hospitals”  Retrieved from www.texaschildrens.org

Haskell, Rob (April 12, 2018). “Disney CEO Bob Iger On Taking the Biggest Risk of His Career”  Retrieved from www.vogue.com

Littleton, Cynthia and Lopez, Ricardo (July 27, 2018). “Disney, 21st Century Fox Shareholders Vote to Approve $71.3 Billion Merger”  Retrieved from www.variety.com