Bob Iger is Finding it Difficult to Leave Disney

Walt Disney Company Chairman and CEO Bob Iger told investors and analysts that he is "open" to staying in his job after his contract expires in June 2018. On a Tuesday afternoon conference call following Disney's first-quarter earnings release, Iger first tried to sidestep a question about his successor with a joke, but acknowledged that he would be amenable to staying on past the end of his contract if it would be in the best interest of the company. Disney will hold its annual shareholder's meeting next month, where the CEO succession plan will almost certainly be high on the agenda.

Over the last three years, Iger, president of Disney since 2005, had to extend his tenure at the Mouse House three times, once in 2014, once in 2016 and once again this past March, as the board of directors has struggled to find his replacement.

But, if everything goes according to plan this time around, Iger can finally settle into retirement in 2019 at the ripe age of 68. However, retiring be more difficult for Iger than it would seem.

Since Iger’s heir apparent, chief operating officer Tom Staggs, left the company in 2016, The Walt Disney Company has been scrambling to find a candidate fit to lead the multibillion-dollar global media empire.

And rightfully so—Iger is not an easy man to replace. Over the course of his twelve year reign at Disney, Iger has ushered in an era of massive blockbuster success, largely through a series of high profile and highly profitable acquisitions. Under Iger, Disney added Pixar, Marvel, and Lucasfilm to its empire, each of which have had their own record-breaking box successes (Finding Dory, The Avengers, and Rogue One, respectively). Meanwhile, Disney’s own animation branch has seen a bump in popularity following through the massive success of films like Frozen and Big Hero 6.

To some speculators, it seems Iger has created his own trap; following a run of unprecedented growth for the company, it would seem that the only direction a new leader could go is down.

For Disney, the future seems especially precarious. While other major studios have begun to flirt with the idea of a different type of in-home theater experience, Disney has largely avoided such negotiations, instead relying on their proven box office streak to carry them for the at least the next few years.

But with Walt Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn also likely to retire soon, the future president of Disney Corporation may not be able to rely on the film branch as much as Iger did.

The next president of Disney has the precarious challenge of balancing the beloved nature of the brand with the harsh reality of rapidly changing digital media landscape. They’ll have to figure out what to do about decreased theater audiences, streaming audiences, and of course, what to do about ESPN’s rapid decline.

For a company that has historically relied on creativity and “imagineering,” many believe that the future of Disney will also belong to someone who understands the tech; Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg was thought to be in the running, before she announced her unwillingness to take the job.

Options for Disney are limited. The cost of failure is high. Iger is currently expected to receive a $5 million bonus on top of his $45 million dollar salary for staying on an extra year. Meanwhile, Disney’s last CEO debacle cost the company almost $100 million in compensation.

Disney may want to get a major leadership shift done quickly. But, before they can, they need it make sure it can be done properly.

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