Six films in the top ten, thirteen in the top 20. The list of highest-grossing films in the history of cinema places the merit (and the profits) with Disney, producer of more than half of the greatest box office hits of all time. If this record had a face and a name, it would without doubt be Bob Iger’s – all these films have been released since 2012 and almost all of them are branded Disney thanks to the deals overseen by Iger during his 15 years as CEO.
In recent weeks, the 69-year-old executive has made the shock announcement that he is resigning before his contract runs out at the end of 2021, though he will remain as executive chairman for another year overseeing the work of his successor, Bob Chapek. Iger leaves behind him an entertainment giant that has grown exponentially compared to the already aristocratic Disney it once was.
CNN is not exaggerating when it says that Bob Iger may be the second most-important person in the history of Disney, behind only Walt himself. “I believe this is the optimal time to transition to a new CEO,” Iger announced. "I've been with the company for 45 years, and was in the CEO job for 15 of those years. It's been a fun run."
In 2005, Iger took the helm at the home of Mickey Mouse taking over from Michael Esner. He immediately realized that to relaunch the company, badly hit by several box-office flops and by its competitors, he needed to put an end to the hostilities with rival Pixar. And what better way to beat your rivals than acquiring them? Iger repaired his relationship with Steve Jobs, owner of the production company behind Toy Story, and at the beginning of 2006, Disney acquired Pixar for 7.4 billion dollars.
Iger will stay on for a year as executive chairman and support his successor Bob Chapek
The Walt Disney Company took off again, drawing on the innovative power and ideas of its former competitors. But this was just the beginning. Two years later, Iger pulled off another deal that would change the course of the company’s history: the 4-billion-dollar acquisition of Marvel, perhaps the most famous creator of comics in the world. At this time, superhero films were still confused and their success short-lived: someone needed to draw up a concrete plan for the future. Disney hit the jackpot: Marvel produced film after film and, just over ten years later, 23 had been released with a further 14 under development. Spiderman, Hulk, Iron Man, the Avengers and many more besides were a gold mine for Disney. The films took over 22.5 billion at the box office making Marvel the most profitable franchise in history. That’s without the merchandise, theme parks and all the rest.
The strategy is a winner: you purchase a slice of the market and you propel it into the billion-dollar world of trilogies, TV series and the digital sphere. The same happened in 2012 when Disney made a successful bid to acquire Lucasfilm for 4.06 billion dollars, ensuring the rights to all the films made by George Lucas. To be clear, this meant little gems like American Graffiti but also the Star Wars and Indiana Jones sagas. Disney went on to launch the third Star Wars saga and even made two spin-offs (which to be honest were not real hits). Success is worldwide and once again Iger shows that he can pull it off.
In 2017 came the last bid – for Rupert Murdoch’s empire. Iger completed the acquisition of the majority share of Twenty-First Century Fox for the enormous sum of 71.3 billion dollars. This was a remarkable investment, but it allowed Disney to get its hands on a treasure trove: tv and film studios, hundreds of films, the National Geographic cable network, 39% of Sky and various other channels around the world.
His personal fortune is estimated at 690 million dollars.
But there was one more thing to do before he went. Iger set the stage for the launch of Disney+, his weapon to enter the most challenging arena of our times. This is how Disney will take on Netflix, Amazon and the other giants of streaming entertainment. But it is also the best way to reap the harvest he has sown of the past 10 years: Disney can now boast an exclusive backlist targeting a very faithful and almost zealous fanbase (fans of Star Wars or Marvel don’t miss a film, taking part in conventions and other events).
But it will not be Iger who steers the outcome of this operation. The results he has achieved are indisputable and tell a story of outstanding success: during his 15 years’ tenure, Disney stock has risen 492% and profits 335%, totalling 2.13 billion last year. Its theme parks around the globe have grown in number, from Hong Kong to Shanghai. Turnover in the first quarter of 2020 has increased by 36% compared to the same period in 2019: 20.86 billion dollars versus 15.3. Now Iger is leaving with a personal fortune estimated at 690 million dollars. That’s not bad for a man who started as a studio supervisor at ABC in 1974 on a monthly salary of just 700 dollars.
In love with his job, Iger has pushed back his retirement four times
There was speculation that Iger was among the possible candidates for the White House. “It’s a bit late, don’t you think?” was his reply when asked after his resignation if he was thinking of putting himself forward to run the United States. Iger will not be leaving Disney just yet. Until his contract expires in December 2021, he will direct the company's creative endeavors without having to run the company too.
Named Businessperson of the year by Time magazine, Iger’s story at the helm of Disney is there for the reading in The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons in Creative Leadership from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company. In the book he explores the principles that are necessary for true leadership. These include: Optimism. Even in the face of difficulty, an optimistic leader will find the path toward the best possible outcome and focus on that, rather than give in to pessimism and blaming. Courage. Leaders have to be willing to take risks and place big bets. Fear of failure destroys creativity. Decisiveness. All decisions, no matter how difficult, can be made on a timely basis. Indecisiveness is both wasteful and destructive to morale. Fairness. Treat people decently, with empathy, and be accessible to them.