Disney CEO Bob Iger grapples with succession planning. Here are the 4 execs who could replace him

Disney is gearing up for what could become a corporate succession battle, just as soon as it wraps up its proxy war with activist investor Nelson Peltz. Current CEO Bob Iger has pledged to appoint a successor to lead the company before he departs at the end of his current contract in 2026, and investors that supported Disney’s slate ahead of tomorrow’s meeting are likely to hold him to it. 

Disney’s board thought it had already answered the question who would lead the company after Iger. But the answer only received partial credit. Iger had to come back to helm the company in 2022 after his chosen successor Bob Chapek was fired by the board, which has been one of Peltz’s sticking points in his fight with Disney in recent months. For the Disney board and Iger, however it is constituted after the vote results tomorrow, hiring the right CEO and executing a transition will be an exercise institutional investors and other potential activists eyeing Disney will closely scrutinize.  

Still, the prospect of leading one of the world’s most influential entertainment companies, not to mention one its most famous brands is a tantalizing prospect for any ambitious executive.

A few of Disney’s most senior executives are expected to be in the running, according to CNBC. The candidates, according to CNBC, include longtime ESPN head Jimmy Pitaro, Dana Walden, who joined the company in the 2019 Fox megadeal, her entertainment division co-chair Alan Bergman, and the chair of Disney’s parks business, Josh D’Amaro. An external candidate isn’t impossible but seems unlikely given Disney’s bench of executive talent and its well-established company culture, which would make the transition cumbersome for a newcomer. 

Plus, hiring an external candidate could also give more ammunition to Disney and Iger’s main critics. Peltz has been relentless in critiquing the Disney board’s succession plans, contending it failed last time around with Chapek in 2020. Chapek, who used to run Disney’s amusement parks division, suffered a number of missteps during his tenure, most notably being unable to gel with the Hollywood creative community. That forced Iger back onto the scene in 2022. 

Disney did not respond to a request for comment. 

With only about a year and a half until Iger leaves, the board’s succession planning has picked up in earnest. Disney appointed a special succession planning committee of several highly experienced board members, including Nike executive chair Mark Parker, former Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman, GM CEO Mary Barra and Lululemon CEO Calvin McDonald, according to company documents. Disney has touted Gorman as being part of the search for Iger’s replacement, given his successful CEO transition at Morgan Stanley, where he serves as executive chair.  

Now the four leading internal candidates—Pitaro, Walden, Bergman, and D’Amaro—will have to prove themselves to Iger, the board, and possibly Peltz, should he win his proxy fight. 

Can ESPN’s Pitaro handle the franchise tag?

Perhaps the strongest argument in Pitaro’s favor is that he already has experience running a massive, global entertainment conglomerate in ESPN. The worldwide leader in sports has a media empire that spans the globe with broadcast channels in the U.S., Latin America, Africa, and Europe, its own streaming service, and now a budding sports gambling operation after a $1.5 billion licensing deal with Penn Entertainment. 

As an executive, Pitaro has shown the dealmaking chops needed to thrive in the wheeling-and-dealing world of entertainment when he struck a deal with Warner Bros. Discovery and Fox to create their own standalone sports streaming service. And at ESPN he’s intimately familiar with the delicate process of negotiating talent contracts. He’s kept ace broadcaster Stephen A. Smith at the network, while at the same letting other on-air talents go in a round of layoffs that surprised many in the industry. 

Working against him, though, is that the cable business, where ESPN makes its nut, has long been on the decline. 

Walden could be the first women to be Disney CEO

Another top contender who comes from Disney’s content engine is Walden, who leads the company’s television and streaming businesses

She joined Disney in 2019 after a distinguished career as a television executive at Fox under the auspices of Rupert Murdoch. When the Australian media titan sold his studio and television assets to Disney for $71 billion in 2019, she went over to the Magic Kingdom.  

Walden’s appointment would be historic, making her the first women to be CEO of the 100-year-old company. A longtime Hollywood executive, she would already be plugged into the creative community that is so vital to Disney’s movie and television businesses. Walden’s track record with filmmakers, producers, and actors would certainly play in her favor, reassuring the board and investors that she would avoid some of Chapek’s mistakes. She’s had a hand in hit TV shows like “24,” “Modern Family,” and “How I Met Your Mother.” 

Her perceived weakness is that she may lack the number-crunching prowess of her fellow C-suite peers, sources told CNBC. Although her supporters told the outlet those criticisms are often leveled at women in corporate leadership roles. 

Box-office Bergman 

Flanking Walden in the race to replace Iger, as he does in their day-to-day jobs, is Bergman, the other co-chair of Disney entertainment who oversees all of its movies. 

Bergman was elevated alongside Walden in a major executive reshuffle in February 2023. At the time he was promoted to oversee all film productions in the U.S. and abroad. Under Bergman’s purview is also the film slate for Disney’s streaming services Hulu and Disney+. 

Some of Bergman’s major responsibilities during his time at Disney included integrating major acquisitions into the company. Bergman helped bring Pixar, Marvel Studios, and Lucasfilm on board at Disney. That’s an especially important feather in his cap given the importance M&A has played in Disney’s content strategy in recent years. 

Under Bergman’s watch, Disney’s movie studios released Avengers: Endgame, the culmination of the more than decade-long Marvel Cinematic Universe project, which became the highest grossing movie of all time in 2019. But a recent string of flops, from Marvel in particular, has put increased pressure on Bergman and the movie studio to turn around their performance. That’s in no small part because Peltz has pointed out the movie division’s middling numbers. 

A second chance for a parks exec

Rounding out the pack is Adam D’Amaro, the head of Disney’s parks business. While perhaps not as high profile or as closely watched by the entertainment press, the parks business is a financial powerhouse. The division turned over $32.5 billion in fiscal 2023, accounting for about a third of the company’s overall revenue, according to company filings. It’s also an especially profitable segment of the House of Mouse with $9 billion in operating income. 

Aside from the exceptional financial performance, Disney’s parks business is a truly global enterprise with locations in the U.S., China, Japan, and France. D’Amaro will have experience navigating the complex geopolitical maze of building and operating such large infrastructure projects in multiple countries. He exhibited a bit of that this past year during Disney’s high-profile war of words with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis over some of the state’s laws targeting LGBTQ people. 

The principal knock against D’Amaro might be through no fault of his own. Working against him is the fact that Chapek came up from the parks division, which many said made him inexperienced in the deft sort of relationship management needed for the entertainment industry. 

While the succession question remains open, much of Disney’s immediate future will be decided this week. On Wednesday Disney shareholders will vote on whether to grant Peltz and a deputy board seats and accept his proposed changes for Disney’s strategy. If Peltz wins, it could throw a further wrench in the board’s succession plans for Iger.

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top