One unusual impact of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic is what it’s meant for Disney’s succession plans. Back in February, the company announced that Bob Chapek (most recently their chairman of parks, experiences and products) was taking over as CEO, with existing CEO Bob Iger (seen above) moving to executive chairman. But as Ben Smith wrote in The New York Times Monday, Iger has retaken a fair bit of control amidst the problems caused by the pandemic:
In an emergency like this, Mr. Iger said, he had no choice but to abandon his plan to pull back.
“A crisis of this magnitude, and its impact on Disney, would necessarily result in my actively helping Bob [Chapek] and the company contend with it, particularly since I ran the company for 15 years!” he said in his email.
…The mood at Disney is “dire,” said a person who has done projects with the company. “They’re covering the mirrors and ripping clothes.”
Mr. Iger, meanwhile, is trying to figure out what the company will look like after the crisis. One central challenge is to establish best practices for the company and the industry on how to bring people back to the parks and rides while avoiding the virus’s spread — using measures like taking visitors’ temperatures.
It’s quite interesting to see Iger reportedly taking so much responsibility again after all of the discussion of how he was turning operations over to Chapek. But this is far from a normal time, and it makes some sense for Iger to re-insert himself here (Smith’s NYT piece includes the line of “It’s a matter of great good fortune that he didn’t just leave” from former HBO CEO Richard Plepler). Iger has led Disney for 15 years, and clearly has quite a bit of knowledge on the company’s divisions and their various operations; it makes sense for him to put that to use during this time. And it also may be beneficial for Chapek in the long term to have Iger (who’s already on his way out the door) take as much responsibility as possible during an incredibly difficult time for Disney.
Disney is really a fascinating company to consider during these times. On one hand, they’re seeing incredible growth for their Disney+ streaming service, which is already over 50 million paying subscribers. And while the box office has been less than projected for movies like Onward, moving those to Disney+ has boosted the interest in them. But their parks are shut down, as is their cruise business, and even ESPN is in some rough times with no live sports; some replication efforts like the HORSE challenge haven’t gone all that well, and top ESPN commentators are reportedly now taking paycuts amidst the current crisis. And it’s quite interesting to see Iger diving back into this in such a challenging time; there’s certainly at least some thoughts that he could have left these struggles to Chapek, and could have just continued on as executive chairman and let his successor take the fall for the current problems. But if Iger’s willing to oversee Disney’s response here, it certainly seems to make some sense to have him do that given his experience.
At any rate, it’s certainly a tough time for Disney. Their parks are shut down, their cruise lines are shut down, and even ESPN doesn’t have a whole lot to talk about these days. But it’s definitely notable to see Iger diving back into the mix here, and to see him trying to preserve the company as much as he can. And while there are still questions about if any of his proposed changes (including reducing pilots and reducing overall employee numbers) will in fact come to pass, it’s certainly interesting to see Iger speaking out publicly about taking a more prominent role in the wake of this pandemic. We’ll see how that works out.