Disney's Twenty Year Corporate Cycle .. As in, "It's All Been Done Before"

February 24, 2023, 5:13 AM

My fascination with Disney company palace intrigue extends back 40 years to when I was first a cast member ... It strikes me that (approximately) every 20 years, tumultuous events lead to an executive level shake-up that has typically evolved into a period of powerful creativity and growth in themed enetratinment.

After Mr. Disney's passing in 1966, there was a fair share of tumult at the executive level. Mr. Roy Disney comes out of retirement to steady the ship, followed by the arrival of Donn Tatum (CEO 1971-1980), followed by Card Walker and Ron Miller. During that rough ride the company opened its Florida resort -- 28,000 acres that included hotels, recreation and shopping facilities as well as two theme parks -- that eventually became the world's number one vacation destination.

However Mr. Miller's skillsets were not enough (in 1984) to deal with corporate raider Saul Steinberg, who exploited an opportunity and green-mailed the company for million. Mr. Miller's shortcomings undermined confidence in him leading to his replacement -- Michael Eisner. Working with his corporate partner Frank Wells, Mr. Eisner led an unprecedented period of growth.

When Mr. Wells died, Mr. Eisner established a firm grip -- butting heads with naysayers which resulted in the ouster of then board member Roy E. Disney -- who launched his "Save Disney" rebellion which was followed by the exit of Mr. Eisner (2005) -- a little more than 20 years after he got the job.

Enter Robert Iger who (through mergers and acquisitions and applied symbiosis across platforms) dramatically expanded the brand's footprint ... His early retirement (2020 -- only 15 years) leads to the rough and tumble tenure of Bob Chapek ... Mr. Iger returns (because he is bound by the corporate oracle [rule] of 20) and he faces a public battle with activist investor Nelson Peltz.

Mr. Iger eventually placates Mr. Peltz and moves forward to helm the creation of a new plan -- redeveloping corporate governance, content distribution and the reinvention of the company's methods of creative development.

Verdict: Disney's timeline (dating back almost sixty years) illustrates that history does seem to repeat. It strikes me that it is safe to predict the company's best years (with the arrival of a new CEO/President in 2024) could very well be just over the horizon.

Replies (15)

February 24, 2023, 8:25 AM

This is an interesting analysis, but I think you could say similar things about other companies and their cyclical churn through executives. A new CEO is obviously going to bring new ideas, innovation, and new ways of doing business that will spark growth.

I think the real question with Disney moving forward is if the next CEO will allow the company to grow organically, or to follow the Iger path of growing through acquisition. I feel that Disney no longer has the appetite to integrate more companies into its matrix (perhaps a true tech firm acquisition - not a partnership - would make sense), but at some point the bills from the Iger-era will come due and all of the debt accumulated will need to be paid off.

Edited: February 24, 2023, 2:44 PM

The debt won't need to be "paid off" -- as in a zero balance. The company will have to implement an ongoing, dynamic strategy to manage it effectively.

Edited: February 24, 2023, 8:53 PM

Bob Iger definitely has trust issues letting go of his baby, just look at how he kept putting off retirement time after time after time, and then when he finally did retire he came back a few weeks later and shadow-managed the company because he didn't think Chapek could handle it. While I am certainly not a fan of many Chapek decisions and his management style, I sure as heck wouldn't want the person who was there before me to come in and start managing things after I was put in charge. Chapek clearly didn't want him there and he didn't have any defined responsibilities (and Chapek wasn't going to give him any to him because he's Bob Iger). That whole situation was just bizarre.

In regards to Eisner his leadership was what the company needed in 1984 but stayed past his prime and by the 2000s needed to go. I know there is a stereotype that Disney got taken over by Jews in the 80s when Stanley Gold/Michael Eisner/Jeffery Katzenberg came in around the same time and "of course that's when they started raising all the prices," but the alternative was basically to be bought up and sold for parts.

Ron Miller, Walt's son in law, got his first job at Disney because Walt kept seeing him get hurt while playing in NFL and didn't want his daughters husband to be a vegetable, so he gave him a job working at the studio. He became CEO the old fashioned way...because he was the founders son in law...he never should have been in that job to begin with.

February 25, 2023, 10:38 PM

TH, one thing that I've always heard about Eisner, be it from execs who worked with/for him, or others who were molded further down the ladder - was that, particularly before Frank died, the man was probably the best CEO in company history. But he was a hardass before Frank died as well - I've got many stories about that I've been told over the years. Nobody ever said he didn't have a firm grip on what Disney needed, at least until his last few years though. Unlike either Iger or Chapek, sadly.

Edited: February 26, 2023, 6:28 AM

Mr. Eisner is/was a tall and tough SOB. Demanding and selfish. I recommend James B. Stewart's great book 'Disney Wars' (2005) wherein the Pulitzer winning author (who had significant access) claimed Mr. Eisner lied regularly -- an attribute that was (sort of) affirmed in Michael Ovitz's book 'Who is Michael Ovitz'.

February 26, 2023, 9:54 AM


DisneyWar is good... But it needs an update/sequel, and misses some key things (like the huge fight the execs had over where EuroDisney was to be located - Madrid/Barcelona vs London vs Paris, and the impact it had on how the park was to succeed - particularly when dealing with French labour and other laws) that would have given choices context (and probably made Eisner look even worse in many respects). Hell, it ignores a lot of transofrmative moments for the company that Eisner either pushed for way too fast or tried stopping despite future benefits, not to mention his regular ability to simply drop funded projects like it's hot when they didn't quite go his way (DisneyQuest, Mickey's Kitchen, DVC expansion outside the parks, among many others)...

February 26, 2023, 2:38 PM

Matt R nails it ... There could have been more ... But there can always be more ... Note to Ken Burns: Why would you not be intrigued by a multi-part documentary series on TWDC? I can actually see/hear the face/voice of Robert Niles gracing my screen when I tune into PBS.

March 1, 2023, 8:59 AM

TH, the biggest problem is more and more of the execs who were running the parks, movies, and so forth even 25 years ago, are passing or pretty close to it. Never mind 40+. The number of people who worked with Walt still alive directly is a fairly small group now - the kind of people you want on tape talking. Unlike the Civil War, or other historical perspectives, Disney is much more prone to recent history...

March 3, 2023, 7:12 AM

@Matt R ... The "biggest problem" with what?

March 3, 2023, 9:26 AM

Any sort of documentary. A lack of first hand participants, let alone written sources, could make such an effort either hopeless or slanted, depending on who or what you can get.

March 3, 2023, 2:03 PM

Bringing the thread back to castle/corporate intrigue, if we believe Mr. Iger will depart (again) by 2025 do we think will be his successor?

March 3, 2023, 7:33 PM

Steve Burke

March 4, 2023, 1:07 AM

A Wild Card pick, but I still say HBO's Casey Bloys would be the man to helm Disney.

March 4, 2023, 1:17 PM

The latest rumor I saw pointed to current NBA commissioner Adam Silver. His contract is up next year, I believe.

Edited: March 5, 2023, 7:30 AM

I'll see your Steve Burke and raise you a Brian Roberts.

I think the easy money is on studio chief Alan Bergman as CEO and elevating Josh D'Amaro to president.

I dropped a note to Robert earlier this week. As I understand it the next D23 Expo is in the fall of 2024 -- the year before UEU opens. If Mr. Iger maintains the terms of his current commitment, his replacement would be picking up his new business cards around that same time.

Absent some planet shattering political or economic calamity, I suspect D23 2024 will feature some very big announcements related to the expansion of the parks. My two cents.

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