Disney Names Thomas Staggs Chief Operating Officer

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Thomas O. Staggs

The COO role positions him as the frontrunner to replace Iger as CEO.

Disney on Thursday named Thomas Staggs its new COO, a move that makes him the top candidate to replace CEO Robert Iger when he retires in mid-2018.

Disney had been operating without a COO since 2005 when Iger was promoted from that role to chief executive, replacing Michael Eisner.

Staggs, a 25-year veteran with the company, is chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, a role he will retain until a successor is found even though his promotion to COO is effective immediately.

It has been widely presumed that Iger — once he got serious about a succession plan — would name a COO that he could groom for the CEO role, and Staggs, along with CFO Jay Rasulo, were his top candidates.

Rasulo, in fact, let his employment contract expire Jan. 31, preferring to keep his options open if Iger were to choose Staggs — or anyone else — over him for the COO slot. Rasulo is still CFO reporting to Iger, not Staggs, though he is working "at will" rather than under contract, and it was unclear Thursday how long he would remain with Disney. 

Staggs, 54, is 9 years younger than Iger. He was Disney's CFO while Rasulo was running parks and resorts when, in 2010, Iger had them essentially swap jobs.

While Staggs was CFO, he played a critical role in the acquisitions of Pixar, Marvel Entertainment and Capital Cities/ABC. As head of parks and resorts he oversees 130,000 "castmembers" and he has been shepherding the development of Shanghai Disney Resort and an Avatar-themed land at Disney's Animal Kingdom Park. Under his leadership, the segment launched two new cruise ships, opened a resort and spa in Hawaii, and revamped Disney California Adventure Park.

"His proven ability to lead a business as well as his successful tenure as Disney’s former CFO make him an ideal chief operating officer, expanding his portfolio into all the company’s businesses," Iger said Thursday.

The appointment of Staggs comes a day after Disney's stock broke the $100 barrier for the first time in the aftermath of a strong first-quarter earnings report. In midday trading Thursday, Disney shares were up 1 percent to $102.20, giving the company a market capitalization of nearly $174 billion, making it the most valuable American media conglomerate. 

Staggs is well-liked on Wall Street for his judicious handling of Disney's balance sheet and capital resources while CFO. But if he earns the CEO spot, he'll have big shoes to fill, given that Disney shares have advanced about 320 percent so far under Iger since he took over the top spot in October 2005, far outpacing the 70 percent gained by the S&P 500.

Those stock gains have made Iger and other top Disney executives very wealthy. Iger's compensation in the most recent fiscal year was $46.5 million, 36 percent more than the year before that. Rasulo made $16.2 million in the most recent year while the compensation for Staggs was not disclosed, though it will be in the future now that he has been promoted to COO.

Questions about who will succeed Iger as Disney's CEO have swirled around the company for the last few years, with the chatter growing louder each time he and the board of directors postponed his departure. The most recent extension came in October and will keep Iger at Disney's helm until the end of June 2018.

Email: Paul.Bond@THR.com