HomeBusinessDisney’s Robert Iger Loomed Over Bob Chapek After Ceding CEO Role, Creating...

Disney’s Robert Iger Loomed Over Bob Chapek After Ceding CEO Role, Creating Tensions

“We’re not at all concerned about creating confusion,” he said in an interview with CNBC later that afternoon.

Less than a month later, the two men disagreed over Mr. Chapek’s plan to lay off tens of thousands of workers at Disney’s theme parks when Covid-19 hit, people familiar with the men say.

Soon after, Mr Iger announced he was taking a more active role because of the pandemic, which left Mr Chapek feeling undermined from the start, according to people familiar with the matter.

Relations between Mr. Iger and his successor — the “two Bobs” who are among only seven men to lead Disney in its nearly 100-year history — have never recovered from those early days of Disney’s transfer of power, according to people who worked with both. executives.

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Mr. Iger paid close attention to Mr. Chapek’s short tenure as CEO, even after leaving the company altogether late last year, until he returned full steam ahead as CEO this week. Over the past two years, he has let friends and colleagues know that he disapproved of the changes Mr. Chapek was making, setting off a whisper campaign across Hollywood that never quite allowed Mr. Chapek to escape the shadow of his predecessor.

Mr Chapek’s ousting on Sunday followed what some of his supporters said was a losing hand to begin with. Mr. Iger was widely regarded as one of the entertainment industry’s greatest executives of all time – so successful that he has said he is seriously considering running for president. After more than 25 years at Disney, Mr. Chapek took over as CEO days before the pandemic was set to explode his bottom line, leading to the furlough and layoffs of thousands of employees and the halting of film and video production. TV production much needed to grow Disney’s streaming services.

Last week, Mr. Iger’s career took a turn for the worse when he received a call from at least one intermediary for Disney’s board asking if he would consider replacing Mr. Chapek, according to people familiar with the matter. Then, on Friday, Disney CEO Susan Arnold called him to offer him the job, confident that he would accept, people said.

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Joseph Yaffe, a partner at the law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP who advises on corporate governance, said the continued presence of a former CEO can generally be a double-edged sword.

“A crucial factor in whether it can work – which is very difficult to judge in advance – is the mindset of the former CEO,” he said. “Are they ready to hand over the reins to new leadership and exercise influence judiciously, or are they simply unable to take their hands off the wheel?”

Mr Chapek, then head of the parks and consumer products division, was named CEO of Disney in February 2020 after the board’s nomination and governance committee vetted a number of internal candidates, people familiar with the matter said.

His first major split with Mr. Iger came just weeks later. Mr. Iger wanted to postpone everything Covid-related staff cuts until the Cares Act, a massive spending bill debated in Congress designed to mitigate the economic impact of the pandemic, was signed into law. That way, laid-off Disney employees could benefit from the protections, Mr. Iger argued, according to people familiar with the matter.

Mr. Chapek wanted to move faster with layoffs, these people said. At the time, many CEOs felt tremendous pressure to cut costs and save money.

Mr. Iger ignored Mr. Chapek, these people said, convincing the board it was better to wait. Then-President Trump signed the bill into law in late March and Disney began laying off tens of thousands of workers in April. Mr. Chapek was furious, some of these people said, and complained to the deputies that he was undermined from the moment he was promoted.

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Disney began laying off tens of thousands of workers in April 2020 as the spread of Covid-19 closed its theme parks.

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Mr. Iger, who had said he would focus on creative work as executive chairman, was meddling in day-to-day matters that were supposed to be the domain of the CEO, Mr. Chapek told his inner circle at the company, people who were familiar with the matter.

Since leaving the company entirely last year, Mr. Iger has been known to dominate lunchtime conversations in Los Angeles with small talk about how he thinks Mr. Chapek has steered Disney in the wrong direction, according to several people who have dined with him in the past . a number of months. Some employees said that Mr. Iger would be so fixated on the subject that it became uncomfortable.

Mr. Iger felt that Mr. Chapek, who set ambitious goals for the growth of Disney’s streaming business, had prioritized that business at the expense of other parts of Disney, such as cable television and the theme parks. Mr Chapek said that in 2020 the number of subscribers grew rapidly, and he dramatically increased initial growth forecasts. Mr. Iger felt that Mr. Chapek’s projections went too far, according to people familiar with Mr. Iger’s thinking.

Mr Iger also felt Mr Chapek was reacting too quickly to changes in Disney’s stock price, and Mr Iger was alarmed by price hikes at Disney theme parks that Mr Chapek claimed would boost revenue and curb overcrowding, they said these people. Mr. Iger received calls from creative executives frustrated with Mr. Chapek, people familiar with the matter said.

“He’s killing the soul of the company,” Mr. Iger told more than one confidant.

The contrast in the public personas of the two men came to a head in March this year when Mr Chapek faced backlash from employees and fans because he said it would be inappropriate for him to speak out about Florida’s controversial parental rights in education law, known to opponents as the “Don’t Say Gay” law. When Mr. Chapek spoke out against the bill, he and Disney were targeted by conservative politicians, including Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

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Mr. Iger, meanwhile, posted an unusually political message to his Twitter account, expressing support for President Biden’s criticism of the bill.

“I agree with the president on this!” said the message. “If this bill passes, it will put vulnerable young LGBTQ people at risk.”

In the spring, shortly after the Florida controversy, some board members considered replacing Mr. Chapek, and Mr. Iger was aware of the discussions, people familiar with the matter said. Finally, Ms. Arnold publicly supported Mr. Chapek in June, and the board renewed his contract soon after.

For some of his colleagues at Disney, Mr. Iger’s life outside the studio gates was an extension of his final years within them, when it seemed like he just didn’t want to leave. Mr. Iger postponed his own retirement four times. He drove a car for a while with a custom license plate frame that asked, “Is there life after Disney?”

Mr. Iger is already making changes to Mr. Chapek’s plans. In one of his latest memos to employees as CEO, Mr Chapek said the company would make “difficult and inconvenient” cost-cutting decisions and there would be layoffs.

This time, Mr. Iger has told his closest associates that he has a priority other than putting the company’s finances in order.

He plans to be more involved in the CEO succession process this time around, some people said.

Ultimately, people said, deciding who is next will be part of his legacy.

Appearing at Disneyland in 2019 with stars of the Avengers franchise, Robert Iger was widely regarded as one of the entertainment industry’s most successful executives.

Photo: Jeff Gritchen/SCNG/Zuma Press

Write to Erich Schwartzel at erich.schwartzel@wsj.com, Emily Glazer at Emily.Glazer@wsj.com, Robbie Whelan at robbie.whelan@wsj.com, and Jessica Toonkel at jessica.toonkel@wsj.com

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