A Legend’s Departure
Celebrated Disney CEO Bob Iger stunned the Magical Kingdom in early 2020 when he released a statement disclosing that he’d be stepping down from his role as chief executive and replaced by a man named Bob Chapek. Throughout a nearly 15 year journey at the helm of one of America’s most iconic brands, he’s garnered quite the reputation; one excerpt from the Wall Street Journal reads:
“Mr. Iger’s record as one of the most successful CEOs in modern entertainment history is widely acknowledged. Disney’s share price has increased more than fivefold under his tenure, its annual revenue has more than doubled and its annual net income has more than quadrupled.”
This is the business savant who early on persuaded visionary Steve Jobs to sell Pixar to Disney for $7.4 billion. He then led the acquisition of Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion in 2009 and shortly thereafter purchased Lucasfilm for about $4 billion. Adding these three media giants to the already entertainment goliath that is Disney skyrocketed the companies prosperity to heights previously unfathomable.
Iger wasn’t done yet though. In 2019 Disney became the owner of 21st Century Fox in a deal that would cost them $71.3 billion. They gained Fox television networks such as FX Networks and National Geographic Partners while also obtaining Fox’s 30 percent ownership of Hulu, ultimately giving Disney a controlling share of 60 percent.
Not to overlook the behemoth of a project that was constructing Shanghai Disneyland for $6 billion – It’s difficult to keep up with a man as productive as Mr. Iger. Then came Disney+; no longer would Mickey Mouse be dependent on other streaming services to set the stage for his show. 5 months and 50 million subscribers later, Disney+ is more than well on its way to becoming the world’s premier streaming service.
With aspirations to finish the boat he’s been working on, just like that, in the blink of an eye, the man behind the curtain disappears amidst his own self-emanating cloud of magical fairy dust; leaving us all perplexed, and wondering, what happens next?
Iger offers further insight into the process of his resignation during a conversation with the New York Times, “It’s only abrupt in other people’s eyes because we haven’t been talking about it publicly. I have been discussing this with the board for a number of months. I basically described what I thought my best use was given that our asset base and strategy are pretty much in place. And that was to fully focus on the creative side of our business and make sure that our creative pipelines are vibrant.”
He continues, “That is very, very important, especially as we roll out Disney Plus around the world. In thinking about what I want to accomplish before I leave the company at the end of ’21, getting everything right creatively would be my No. 1 goal. I could not do that if I were running the company on a day-to-day basis.”
According to Iger, naming Bob Chapek CEO allowed for a “frictionless” transition, giving Disney the chance to side-step endless months of speculation, anxiety, and competition. We must understand, however, that one isn’t just proclaimed the leader of what could very well be the world’s most recognized and cherished brand for the sake of expediency; with this being said, let’s explore the origins of the new man behind the curtains, Disney Chief Executive Officer, Bob Chapek.
Bob Chapek was born amongst the bustling midwestern suburbs of Chicago in 1960 to Bernard and Marie Chapek. His father, a World War II veteran, found employment as an oil refinery machinist while his mother worked at an insurance agency in East Chicago.
When reflecting on childhood family trips to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, he tells the Los Angeles Times, “That’s where I first developed a deep love for Disney and all that it stands for.” Outside of the once in a blue moon vacation, his parents were constantly working – leaving Bob to his own devices for hours on end after returning home from school. “I think I was one of the original latch-key kids,” he says.
Despite whatever adventurous trouble he’d manage to get himself into while home alone, he was always sure to be ready for altar boy duties at St. John the Baptist church by 6 a.m. This innate ability to be consistently relied upon may have come from a lesson his parents taught him early on, “They instilled a work ethic in me and worked hard for the nicer things in life. I saw their role-modeling, and it made a permanent impact on my drive and ambition. The people of Northwest Indiana are people with high integrity and an extraordinary work ethic,” says Chapek.
Bob graduated from Clark High School in 1977. His mother, Marie, told The Times of Northwest Indiana, “He played hard and worked hard.” She added, “He put his heart and soul into everything. If he did a job, he was never satisfied. He always wanted to do more. And he still has a heart for the Calumet region and feels very close to Hammond.”
The year Chapek was born, his hometown’s population reached a record high when reporting over 110,000 residents! While making its name as a retail/entertainment oasis just outside of Chicago, Hammond’s economy also featured industries as diverse as steel production, manufacturing, banking, healthcare, construction, etc.
If you were to walk around downtown Hammond, Indiana today, at some point, you’d pause amidst the many multi-story buildings wondering, “where are all the people?” Throughout the 60s and 70s, those same streets would be so packed that you’d have a hard enough time trying to find the sidewalk.
There were performances by transcendent artists such as Sonny and Cher and the rock band KISS at local theatres, Robert Kennedy triumphantly made his way down main street as thousands poured onto the road with hopes of catching a glimpse of his 1968 Presidential campaign, and like a glistening symbol of prosperity, the gargantuan city-block sized building housing Goldblatt’s retail store stood watch over this bustling community.
Recording a population of 75,795 in 2018, tens of thousands have since moved on from the city, international caliber talents no longer fill the theatres, and Goldblatt’s was reduced to rubble in a funeral-style implosion. Not to mention, Bobby Kennedy’s life was taken by an assassin’s bullet only a month or so after he rode through downtown Hammond like a knight in shining armor.
In many ways, the town Chapek grew up in is no longer the same place he once called home. Some would classify it as a casualty of America’s declining “Rust Belt,” meanwhile, others cling to ever-fading memories of a gilded past, holding out with hopes of a turnaround. Regardless of anyone’s opinion, Bob chose to leave and never looked back.
Immediately after high school, Chapek went on to attend Indiana University Bloomington, ultimately earning a Bachelor of Science degree in 1981.
“At a time when some assert that a liberal arts education is not in tune with our modern technology-saturated times, Bob is a prime example of how the deep knowledge and practical skills learned in the liberal arts and sciences will always remain essential to nearly every profession and to the growth and development of our society,” says IU President Michael A. McRobbie.
He later got an M.B.A from Michigan State University in 1984.
Bob calls his experience at MSU “the best investment I ever made in my life.” As he recalls, “It was very practical and pragmatic. There’s not an MBA program anywhere that is superior to what I experienced at MSU.”
The Career of Bob Chapek
Bob Chapek’s first employer after college was Amoco Oil Company, based in Chicago.
H. J. Heinz Company
He then went on to work in brand management at Heinz. The company is renowned for its signature lines of ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, and other sauces.
J. Walter Thompson
Transitioning his brand image skills to the advertising industry, Chapek accepted a position with ad agency, J Walter Thompson. Having been merged with Wunderman since 2018, the organization was most notably known for its cutting-edge marketing tactics and working with the following clients: Unilever, Kraft Foods, Kimberly-Clark, Nestle, Kellogg’s, Ford Motor, Johnson & Johnson, HSBC, and others.
Walt Disney Company
“Coming from Hammond, the first thing you consider when thinking about a career is not necessarily working for Disney in Hollywood,” he told The Times of Northwest Indiana in a 2006 interview. “On the other hand, somebody has to do that job and why not me?”
Like any classic hero born in obscurity, forged by trials, and eager to make a difference in the world, Bob Chapek first began working at Disney in 1993.
President of Walt Disney Studios
Chapek first created some buzz at the Magic Kingdom when he orchestrated the company’s both controversial and very successful “vault” strategy for its timeless animated films. Disney would bring them on and off the market in cycles, allowing them to sell the films repeatedly on DVD and Blu-ray discs.
He’d go on to serve as president of Distribution for The Walt Disney Studios, where he managed the Company’s film content distribution strategy across multiple platforms, and later as president of Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, where he led the organization to record-setting performances and played a key role in the commercialization of the Studio’s film business.
Chapek was appointed president of Disney Consumer Products in September 2011. After the acquisition of Lucasfilm, Chapek integrated Star Wars merchandise into Disney’s licensing program, ensuring Disney’s position as the world’s largest licensor of intellectual property. In 2013, Chapek secured a deal with Hasbro, whereby the toy company paid Disney $80 million in royalties to extend the license for Marvel toys and an agreement for Hasbro to pay Disney up to $225 million for the rights to forthcoming Star Wars merchandise.
In 2014, he launched the Disney Imagicademy, which featured a suite of numerous tablet and smart-phone apps designed to give children high-quality learning games. This was Disney’s first full foray into the learning-app market. Chapek said he spearheaded this initiative after numerous parents told his department that they found it difficult to find high-quality learning apps of the thousands that were available online.
Disney Parks and Resorts
During his tenure, Disney Parks saw the largest investment and expansion in its sixty-year history, including the successful opening of Shanghai Disney Resort; nearly doubling the Disney Cruise Line fleet; introducing the most technologically advanced and immersive lands in the parks’ history, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland Resort and Walt Disney World Resort; the growth of Marvel-inspired attractions across the globe; and one of the most ambitious development projects at Disneyland Paris since the park first opened.
Chapek’s guest-centric approach focuses on ensuring that every aspect of an experience is uniquely Disney and exceeds guest expectations. At Disney Parks, he implemented innovative strategies to improve the guest experience by balancing demand at the parks, integrating new franchises at locations around the world, and introducing beloved and iconic experiences to new generations of Disney fans.
According to the Wall Street Journal, “The division’s annual income growth averaged about 13% between 2015—the year he took over—and 2019. In 2017, under Mr. Chapek’s stewardship parks and resorts was the only division to escape ending the year in a deficit.”
Disney Chief Executive
Just under two months into 2020, Disney dropped the following seismic press release:
BURBANK, Calif., February 25, 2020—The Walt Disney Company (NYSE: DIS) Board of Directors announced today that Bob Chapek has been named Chief Executive Officer, The Walt Disney Company, effective immediately.
As tectonic plates within the company began to shift, Iger praised his successor, saying, “Throughout his career, Bob has led with integrity and conviction, always respecting Disney’s rich legacy while at the same time taking smart, innovative risks for the future. His success over the past 27 years reflects his visionary leadership and the strong business growth and stellar results he has consistently achieved in his roles at Parks, Consumer Products and the Studio. Under Bob’s leadership as CEO, our portfolio of great businesses and our amazing and talented people will continue to serve the Company and its shareholders well for years to come.”
Variety notes that during and investor call, Chapek reflected on his childhood family trips to Walt Disney World telling analysts, “That young boy could’ve never imagined that one day he would get the chance to lead this extraordinary company as the seventh CEO in its nearly 100-year history.”
“I am incredibly honored and humbled to assume the role of CEO of what I truly believe is the greatest company in the world, and to lead our exceptionally talented and dedicated cast members and employees,” Mr. Chapek said in a statement. Adding, “Bob Iger has built Disney into the most admired and successful media and entertainment company, and I have been lucky to enjoy a front-row seat as a member of his leadership team. I share his commitment to creative excellence, technological innovation and international expansion, and I will continue to embrace these same strategic pillars going forward. Everything we have achieved thus far serves as a solid foundation for further creative storytelling, bold innovation and thoughtful risk-taking.”
Drawing comparisons to Apple’s Tim Cook – a man who managed to successfully fill the shoes of his company’s legendary founder, Steve Jobs – the bar has almost never been higher for an incoming CEO.
Bob Chapek is certainly no Bob Iger.
“Bob’s [Iger] leaving on top, with his legacy intact. What happens from here is on Bob Chapek’s watch,” said Los Angeles investment banker Lloyd Greif. “And he’s facing a tall order, with all of the challenges barreling down the track at Disney. Iger’s a tough act to follow any way you cut it.”
It doesn’t take long to realize that Chapek’s a bit less charismatic than his predecessor and perhaps subtly more stiff in demeanor. Jim Cora, former chairman of Disneyland International describes the man’s presence in the office, saying, “If you’re not doing well, you’re going to hear about it, and if you’re doing well, you’re going to hear about it. He’s creative, he’s industrious, he cares about the show, and he listens, and that says a lot.”
Probably the biggest thing he has going for him is his unmatched knowledge and experience in a vast variety of Disney business ventures.
“Chapek is a really good, no-brainer pick — the other division leaders have been there too short of a time,” Michael Nathanson, founding partner at MoffettNathanson, said in a phone interview. “He’s a really nice person who is part of the Disney culture, which is important.”
A Consistent Vision for Disney
Although Iger will no longer be in charge of day to day operations, his vision for the company is still functioning in every way.
“I intend to double down on the exact same strategies that Bob [Iger] has established 15 years ago that have served us so well,” Chapek told Bloomberg TV after the news had been announced, adding that the “core of everything… is really our creative storytelling.”
“And if the creative storytelling is right, then everything else is right, no matter what distribution channel you put it in, the way you put it in the theatrical channel, whether you put it in Disney Plus or whether you put it in theme parks,” he said. “So the thing I’ve really taken away from Bob Iger’s legacy is: get the content right and everything else kind of follows suit.”
“I have absolute confidence in his abilities, as does the board,” Mr. Iger told analysts on a conference call. “I intend to work very closely with Bob. My goal when I leave here is that he will be just as steeped in the creative part of the business as I am today.”
Due to the onset of COVID-19, Iger has taken on a much more hands-on role in the company than he expected to since resigning. Despite a global pandemic at hand and as a result, Iger’s continued heavy involvement in business operations, Chapek remains CEO of The Walt Disney Company.