Building a better mouse

Making bold decisions in his first year as CEO, Robert A. Iger has put Disney on the path to a prosperous future.

He was well known and widely admired for being the loyal No. 2. The consummate company man. The effective diplomat. The cool-headed strategist.

When the time came in fall 2004 for the board of directors of the Walt Disney Co. to select a CEO successor for the enigmatic Michael Eisner, Robert A. Iger was the logical choice. He had a hard-earned reputation as a sharp, dedicated, personable executive. After a 25-year career at ABC, Iger had spent the previous five years as Eisner's second-in-command as Disney's president and chief operating officer, during which time he instituted a top-to-bottom overhaul of Disney's international operations and brought a cohesive approach to the marketing of the company's golden family-friendly brand name around the world.

But there would be no quick coronation for the logical choice. There were questions, posed loudly by a chorus of harsh critics, who at that time included maverick Disney shareholders Roy Disney and Stanley Gold. Would Iger be decisive in the unfamiliar role as No. 1? Was he too wrapped up in the Eisner regime to forge his own path for the $67 billion media giant? Did he have the vision to lead Disney into the digital future?

For months, Iger rolled with the punches from countless media reports and Wall Street analysts' musings about his future, as well as a tidal wave of conjecture about the possibility of others landing the job he sought. Through the storm, he stayed characteristically sanguine, right up through the Sunday afternoon, March 13, 2005, when Disney's corporate communications department released the press release with the headline he'd waited so long to read: "Robert A. Iger named chief executive officer of the Walt Disney Company."

"I always knew he'd get the job. There was no question he was the best man for it," says Tom Murphy, former chief executive of Capital Cities/ABC who became a mentor to Iger after Capital Cities acquired ABC in 1985. "He knew all the businesses inside out."

If there were any lingering doubts about Iger's ability to move forcefully as a leader, they were put to rest two weeks after Eisner's retirement on Sept. 30, 2005. Eisner's shadow was left in the wings of the California Theater in San Jose, Calif., when Iger walked onstage to ceremoniously shake hands with Apple CEO Steve Jobs over the groundbreaking iTunes content licensing deal between the Walt Disney Co. and the computer giant.

Three months later, Iger made headlines with his $7.4 billion purchase of Pixar Animation Studios, a deal he had described as being key to revitalizing creativity in the most central of Disney's core businesses: animation.

"Nothing is more important than creativity to Disney's success; and animation is Disney's creative center," Iger said just after the Pixar acquisition was announced.

Few would have predicted that Disney would single-handedly rewrite the rules of primetime series business during Iger's first month as solo CEO (he shared power with Eisner for a six-month transition period). Although he grew up as an executive in the TV-centered environment of ABC, Iger also has taken bold steps to rewire Disney's film operations. He raised eyebrows early on after his selection as CEO by openly questioning the traditional cycle of film exhibition windows. This summer, even as the studio was riding high atop the summer boxoffice stats with the smash "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," Disney reorganized its film and home entertainment operations, eliminating 650 jobs and paring its yearly film slate to 12-13 titles, down from 17-20 in recent years.

Friends and colleagues say Iger's quiet whirlwind of activity is hardly surprising.

"That's the thing about Bob," says producer Brian Grazer, a friend of Iger's for the past 15 years and chairman of Imagine Entertainment. "He appears to be so conservative, but at the core of his central nervous system is a guy who has taken a lot of chances. That was a bold and edgy move."

One of Iger's strengths as an executive is his infectious confidence, friends and colleagues say. He exudes a self-assuredness that makes him a strong leader without seeming arrogant or cocky. Murphy saw Iger at his best one day in a hectic TV control room during the Winter Olympics in Calgary in February 1988. At the time, Iger was ABC's head of sports programming, and he was intimately involved in all aspects of the network's Olympics coverage. In a moment of crisis for the production team, Iger stood in the booth and methodically began calling the shots, literally, until the panic abated.

"That was really the first time we noticed, 'Hey, there's an able fella,'" Murphy says. Iger's career at Capital Cities/ABC went on the superfast track after that.

But even as Iger moved up the ranks, friends say he has never lost his down-to-earth, regular-guy disposition. He's a sports buff who was known for pulling out a football sometimes to toss around a conference room to blow off steam during intense meetings during his ABC days. He's generally soft-spoken but a terrific conversationalist, one who is apt to talk about coaching his sons' sports teams as he is about global politics or a new best-seller. He also is a devoted husband, married to former ABC News and CNN anchor Willow Bay, who is considered his closest confidant and best friend. He's the father of four, two adult daughters from his first marriage and two boys who help him keep abreast of trends in the youth market. He's known for keeping early hours in the office, after an even earlier workout session. Top Disney and ABC executives often have an e-mail from him waiting for them when they wake up.

"Bob is unassuming, unpretentious, kind and decent," says Ted Harbert, president and CEO of Comcast Entertainment Group, a longtime friend and former ABC colleague of Iger's. "He's everything you look for in a friend. He's never let his own success go to his head."

As a boss, Harbert and others say Iger is the kind of manager who gives his lieutenants plenty of berth to do their jobs. He's definitely a "people person," friends say.

"People like to work for Bob," Murphy says. "He's fundamentally a nice man. His style is to delegate responsibility and give people the authority they need to do their jobs."

Iger's people skills were crucial in allowing him to successfully accomplish several key diplomatic missions for Disney in his first months after being named CEO. Top of the list was coming to settlement terms with Miramax Films' Harvey Weinstein and Bob Weinstein, whose separation from Disney had been playing out very publicly and contentiously. When Iger made it a priority to wind up what had been a long and complex negotiation, the stalemate ended and the deal got done, in a testament to Iger's involvement.

"The team that Bob put in place to execute it made it happen," says Jim Wiatt, CEO of WMA and a friend of Iger's who was a key liaison in the talks between the Weinsteins and Disney. "And he personally supervised the team to make sure it got done."

Around the same time, Iger also made peace with Roy Disney and his business partner Gold, who had criticized Iger's selection as CEO, though most of their complaints were directed at the selection process undertaken by the Disney board rather than at Iger's qualifications per se. After personal appeals from Iger, Roy Disney and Gold agreed to drop the shareholders' lawsuit filed against the company and end their campaign to elect an alternate slate of directors for Disney.

Quieting the distraction of Roy Disney's campaign -- which dovetailed with the unsuccessful and unsolicited Disney takeover bid proffered in early 2004 by cable giant Comcast Corp. -- brought calm to the studio lot in Burbank after a long period of turmoil within Disney. But for the long-term future of the Walt Disney Co., nothing Iger has done in his first year in office has been more far-reaching than the Pixar deal. It has brought Apple's Jobs closer into the Disney fold as a board member and largest individual shareholder thanks to Jobs' erstwhile dual role as the former CEO of Pixar. The deal settled more than a year of public rancor between Jobs and Disney, which had prospered as the distributor of Pixar's CG-animated blockbusters, starting with 1995's "Toy Story." Jobs had made no secret of his unhappiness with Iger's predecessor, Eisner, and Disney's handling of negotiations to renew the Pixar-Disney distribution alliance.

Like the iTunes pact, buying Pixar was viewed by outsiders as a gutsy move by the new Disney boss. To Iger, according to his public comments on the deal, cementing ties with Pixar and its resident geniuses, including John Lasseter and Ed Catmull, was nothing short of a strategic imperative for the company built on the back of Mickey Mouse.

Disney's recent struggles with animated features underscored the need for new blood and new vision among its creative leaders in animation.

"In looking at the company and its future, I felt that it was incredibly important for animation to be successful. Probably more so than any of our other businesses," Iger said in May during an interview with Eisner that aired as part of CNBC's "Conversations With Michael Eisner" series. "I felt that we had talent in animation. But we also needed great leadership. I didn't think I could provide that leadership in animation. And I believed strongly that the people at Pixar could."

Born and raised in Oceanside, N.Y., Iger had his sights set on television by the time he made it to Ithaca College in New York as a communications major. He worked for a time as a correspondent and weatherman for a station in Ithaca. After graduating in 1973, Iger joined ABC in New York as a studio supervisor. Once in the door, he quickly segued into the ABC Sports division, where he climbed the ranks for a dozen years under the guidance of mentors that included such broadcasting legends as Capital Cities/ABC's Murphy, Dan Burke and Roone Arledge. Even after Disney acquired Capital Cities/ABC in 1996, Iger remained in place as president of the ABC Group until he was tapped as Eisner's No. 2 in January 2000.

Harbert recalls being impressed while watching Iger giving a presentation at an ABC affiliate meeting at the Century Plaza Hotel, Los Angeles, in 1987 when Iger was head of sports programming. At the time, the two men worked on opposite coasts and didn't know each other all that well. After watching Iger in action at the affiliate meeting, Harbert knew that Iger was someone he needed to get to know.

"Without a single note, without a TelePrompTer, Bob went through the entire ABC sports schedule for the year without missing a beat, without stumbling over one word and without signaling anything other than 100% confidence," Harbert recalls. "I remember turning to my boss, (then-ABC Entertainment president) Brandon Stoddard, and saying, 'That guy's going to run the company some day.'"

Harbert was right, though it would take far longer than he and others expected. A few months after that affiliate gathering, Iger was promoted to executive vp of ABC Television Network in 1988, a position that was a staging area for him to become entertainment president in 1989 when he relocated to the West Coast. Among the series he championed during his tenure as head of programming were blue-collar sitcoms "Roseanne" and "Home Improvement," the cult-fave "Twin Peaks" and the highly controversial "NYPD Blue."

By 1993, when Harbert succeeded him as entertainment president, Iger was back on the East Coast as president of ABC Television Network Group. A year later, he was named president and chief operating officer of ABC. Iger was months away from succeeding Murphy as CEO of the Capital Cities/ABC enchilada when Murphy and Eisner had their fateful conversation at investment banker Herbert Allen's annual moguls' retreat in Sun Valley, Idaho. Announced in July 1995, Disney's $19 billion deal to acquire Capital Cities/ABC derailed Iger's career plan for another decade. The patience he demonstrated and the effort he put in to learning everything he could about the Walt Disney Co. is characteristic of Iger, friends say.

"Bob is extremely patient, and he's extremely knowledgeable," Grazer says. "He's contemplative. He thinks about things very deeply. He's always fair. You blend those qualities in an executive, and that is exactly what you want in a person who is running a network or a studio."

Indeed, Iger has the right blend of skills and personality traits to lead an enterprise like Disney at a time of upheaval in the global media and entertainment business. Perhaps most importantly, he has a strong, clear vision of where Disney needs to go in its second century, friends say.

"Bob is the kind of guy you root for," WMA's Wiatt says. "For a long time, he's had a vision of what the company should be doing in the digital space, in marketing and distribution. Everything he's done (as CEO) has been very measured, very well thought-out. He really understands Disney, and since he's had the chance to execute that vision, the company has been doing spectacularly well."

Diane Mermigas in Chicago contributed to this report.
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