“We are not at all concerned with creating confusion,” he said in an interview with CNBC later that afternoon.
Less than a month later, the two men were at odds over Chapek’s plan to lay off tens of thousands of workers at Disney theme parks when Covid-19 hit, people familiar with the men say.
Soon after, Iger announced that he would be taking a more active role due to the pandemic, making Chapek feel as though he had been undermined from the start, according to people familiar with the matter.
Relations between Iger and his successor, the “two Bobs” who are among the seven men who led Disney in its nearly 100-year history, have never recovered from those early days of Disney’s transition of power, according to people who worked With both. executives
Iger loomed large during Chapek’s short tenure as chief executive, even after he left the company altogether late last year, until returning this week as chief executive. Over the past two years, he’s let friends and colleagues know that he disapproves of the changes Chapek is making, sparking a whispering campaign in Hollywood that never lets Chapek out of the shadow of his predecessor.
Chapek’s removal on Sunday followed what some of his supporters say was a loose hand to begin with. Mr. Iger was widely viewed as one of the greatest entertainment industry executives of all time, so successful that he has said that he seriously considered running for president. After more than 25 years at Disney, Mr. Chapek took over as CEO days before the pandemic detonated his bottom line, resulting in the suspension and firing of thousands of employees and the shutdown of film and television production. television that was desperately needed for Disney’s streaming services to continue to grow. .
Last week, Iger’s career took a turn when he received a call from at least one intermediary on the Disney board asking if he would consider replacing Chapek, according to people familiar with the matter. Then on Friday, Disney’s chairwoman of the board, Susan Arnold, called to offer her the job, confident she would accept, the people said.
Corporate governance officials say departing CEOs must strike a balance in passing the baton.
Robert Iger’s biggest moves that reshaped Disney: From Star Wars to streaming
Joseph Yaffe, a partner at the law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP who advises on corporate governance, said the continued presence of a former chief executive can often be a double-edged sword.
“A critical factor in whether it can work, which is very difficult to assess beforehand, is the mindset of the former CEO,” he said. “Are you ready to hand over the reins to new leadership and exercise your influence judiciously, or are you just unable to take your hands off the wheel?”
The head of the parks and consumer products division at the time, Chapek, was named Disney chief executive in February 2020 after the board’s nominating and governance committee vetted several internal candidates, people familiar with the matter said. the case.
His first big break with Iger came a few weeks later. Iger wanted to delay any covid-related job cuts until the Cares Act, a massive spending bill being debated in Congress aimed at mitigating the economic impact of the pandemic, was signed into law. That way, laid-off Disney employees could take advantage of their protections, Iger argued, according to people familiar with the matter.
Chapek wanted to move faster on layoffs, these people said. At the time, many CEOs felt enormous pressure to cut costs and preserve cash.
Mr. Iger overruled Mr. Chapek, these people said, and convinced the board it was best to wait. Then-President Trump signed the bill into law in late March, and Disney began furloughing tens of thousands of workers in April. Chapek was furious, some of these people said, and complained to deputies that he was being undermined from the moment he was promoted.
Iger, who had said he would focus on creative work as chief executive, was interfering in day-to-day affairs that were supposed to be the chief executive’s domain, Chapek told his inner circle at the company, people familiar with the matter told him.
Since leaving the company entirely last year, Iger has been known to dominate lunchtime conversations in Los Angeles talking about how he thinks Chapek has led Disney in the wrong direction, according to several people who have dined with him in the past. . Several months. Some associates said Iger became so obsessed with the subject that he became uncomfortable.
Iger felt that Chapek, who set ambitious goals for the growth of Disney’s broadcast business, had prioritized that business at the expense of other parts of Disney, such as cable television and the theme parks. Mr. Chapek said that in 2020 the number of subscribers was growing rapidly and dramatically increased initial growth projections. Iger thought Chapek’s projections went too far, according to people familiar with Iger’s thinking.
Iger also felt Chapek was overly responsive to changes in Disney’s stock price, and Iger was alarmed by price increases at Disney theme parks that Chapek said would boost revenue and limit crowding, the companies said. people. Iger received calls from creative executives frustrated with Chapek, people familiar with the matter said.
“He is killing the soul of the company,” Iger told more than one confidant.
The contrast in the two men’s public personas came to a head in March of this year, when Mr. Chapek faced backlash from employees and fans for saying he felt it would be inappropriate for him to intervene in the controversial project of Florida Parents’ Rights in Education Act. also known by opponents as “Don’t Say Gay” legislation. When Mr. Chapek spoke out against the bill, he and Disney became targets of conservative politicians, including Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
Meanwhile, Iger posted an unusually political message on his Twitter account, echoing support for President Biden’s criticism of the bill.
“I’m with the president on this!” the message said. “If passed, this bill will put vulnerable LGBTQ youth at risk.”
In the spring, shortly after the Florida controversy, some board members considered replacing Chapek, and Iger was aware of the discussions, people familiar with the matter said. Finally, Ms. Arnold publicly endorsed Mr. Chapek in June, and the board extended his contract shortly thereafter.
For some of his colleagues inside Disney, Mr. Iger’s life outside the studio doors was an extension of his later years inside them, when it seemed like he just didn’t want to leave. Mr. Iger postponed his own retirement four times. For a while, he drove a car with a custom license plate frame that asked, “Is there life after Disney?”
Mr. Iger is already making changes to Mr. Chapek’s plans. In one of his final memos to employees as chief executive, Chapek said the company would make “tough and uncomfortable” cost-cutting decisions and that layoffs were looming.
This time, Iger has told his close associates that he has another priority beyond getting the company’s finances on its feet.
He is planning to get more involved in the CEO succession process this time around, some people said.
Ultimately, the people said, deciding who comes next will be part of their legacy.
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