Bob Iger's Heir Apparent Thomas Staggs to Step Down at Disney

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Thomas Staggs

The exec was named chief operating officer last February.

In an unexpected move that muddles the Walt Disney Co.'s plans for succession when Bob Iger steps down as CEO, Thomas Staggs, promoted to COO 14 months ago, will relinquish the role next month, the company said Monday. 

The surprise move comes as Disney's board of directors announces it "will broaden the scope of its succession planning process to identify and evaluate a robust slate of candidates for consideration" as the next CEO.

Some insiders speculated Monday that Staggs, a well-regarded executive who spent a decade as Disney's CFO and also ran its parks and resorts division, wasn't satisfied with the proposition of waiting for the board to make its determination and perhaps be passed over for CEO after Iger steps aside at the end of June 2018.

Iger will be 67 years old when his contract ends and he and the board could conceivably agree to extend his reign over Disney, as has happened in the past, a prospect that also may have contributed to Staggs' decision to leave, some observers speculated.

Whoever the board chooses as its next CEO will have some big shoes to fill, as Iger's tenure, which began in 2005, is marked by relatively rapid growth for such a large company, as well as bold acquisitions — including Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm — and a stock price that has surged 320 percent in a decade.

On Monday, Disney shares were off fractionally during the regular session but fell 2 percent after the closing bell when the company announced that Staggs was leaving.

"I believe most investors viewed Tom as the likely and well-prepared future CEO of Disney," said Guggenheim Securities analyst Michael Morris. "This was surprising. The company had all but telegraphed that Staggs was to be Iger's successor," added Brian Wieser of Pivotal Research Group.

Some observers noted Monday that while Staggs is popular on Wall Street and has a firm grasp of the emerging technologies that are reshaping the entertainment industry, a perceived shortcoming that may have given the board of directors pause was his inexperience on the creative side of the business.

"This announcement is a very big surprise given the fanfare that surrounded his promotion to COO," said Bill Simon of Korn Ferry, an executive search firm.

"There's enough time to find someone from inside or outside to groom as heir to Iger, but CEO at Disney is a tough job and Bob Iger is a tough act to follow," added Hal Vogel of Vogel Capital Management.

Staggs, 55, will step down as COO on May 6 but will remain with the company in the role of special adviser to Iger until the end of Disney's fiscal year.

“Tom has been a great friend and trusted colleague for more than 20 years,” Iger said in a statement. “He’s made important contributions to this company, earning wide respect across the organization for his achievements and personal integrity. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished together, immensely grateful for the privilege of working with him and confident that he will be enormously successful in whatever opportunity he chooses."

Staggs had been with Disney for a quarter century when Iger made him COO in February 2015, effectively identifying him as his preferred heir apparent over Jay Rasulo, who had a similar résumé given he had been CFO of Disney and also chairman of its parks of resorts unit. Passed over for the COO spot, Rasulo left Disney in June.

“Disney truly stands alone, not only because of the company’s phenomenal creativity, but also because of the thousands of remarkable people who make it such an extraordinary place," Staggs said Monday. "It’s been a privilege to work with them and be inspired by their creativity and commitment. It’s also been a great experience to work with Bob during this dynamic era of unprecedented growth and transformation. I remain grateful for that opportunity, and I’m confident that Disney’s future will be just as exciting as its legendary past.”

Georg Szalai contributed to this report.