The most powerfulman in Hollywood, Robert Iger, is big on timing. This morning was typical. After awakening to an alarm set to 4:15 a.m., the Walt
mpany’s chairman and CEO spent five minutes getting dressed, washing his face and securing his earbuds before heading to a gym inside the house in Brentwood he shares with his wife of 24 years, Willow Bay.
Iger, 68, spent the next 30 minutes working out on a VersaClimber, an old-school instrument of torture that mimics mountain climbing, before greeting his personal trainer, who put Iger through 40 minutes of stretches and weight training. Then, right on schedule, Iger showered and had a cup of coffee.
After arriving at his office in Burbank at 6:45 a.m., ahead of other Disney executives, Iger ran a slew of meetings, briefings and correspondence. He prefers email to phone calls because the latter tend to go on and on—much like dinner meetings, which he also shuns. Iger is the sort who considers being on time being late. To arrive at his office 10 minutes ahead of schedule is to find him already hovering in the doorway—one eye on his iPad’s calendar app, the other on you. “Come in, come in,” he says with a three-finger wave. “Early is good.”
Despite Iger’s obsession with time management, or perhaps because of it, he presents as a guy with all the time in the world. Iger, whom everyone calls Bob, looks almost maddeningly healthy (trim, tanned, anchorman hair). He’s mastered the semi-casual chic look (dark blue pants-shirt combo, no jacket or tie) favored by Hollywood executives these days.
Iger’s demeanor makes sense. He runs the world’s biggest and richest entertainment colossus, whose marquee movie studios, TV networks and amusement parks are booming. By midsummer, thanks toCaptain Marvel, Avengers: EndgameandThe Lion King, Disney had already notched the highest-grossing year in Hollywood history ($7.67 billion). AndFrozen IIdoesn’t even come out until November.
But Iger’s life has been a little bonkers over the past two years, during which he’s mulled a 2020 White House run, fired Roseanne Barr and been publicly shamed (by Walt Disney’s great-niece, no less) over his $65.6 million pay package. Meantime, he executed two titanic corporate power plays. Disney, in one of the biggest media mergers ever, spent $71.3 billion to acquire the major entertainment assets of 21st Century Fox. The deal fortified Disney’s frontal attack on a key competitor, Netflix. The forthcoming Disney+ streaming service audaciously promises to reshape the entertainment-industrial complex. Iger seems unfazed. “I think I’ve just generally been wired to not be particularly fearful,” he says. “Part of it is just innate optimism that I have. Part of it is a belief in myself and the people I work with—that we can overcome almost anything.”
Oddly, the only subject that does unnerve him is the new book he wrote about his reign at Disney. “I just didn’t want to sound self-congratulatory,” Iger says, “or pat myself on the back—‘Look at who I am and what I’ve done.’ ”
A week after deadline, Iger says, he made 2,800 revisions in five days. Now he feels better about it. Sort of. “I’m very self-conscious about it,” Iger says. “When you see your smiling face on the cover, it’s—a lot.”
Then he checks his Apple watch.
Iger’s book,The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned From 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company, came out September 23 from Random House. “This book is not a memoir,” Iger writes. He considers it a primer on leadership, one that espouses his core principles (optimism, courage, fairness); dispenses hard-won advice (Chapter 7: It’s About the Future); and reveals his M.O. when firing people (“I’ve asked you to come in here for a difficult reason”).
That being said, the book kind ofisa memoir, one that explains how a mild-mannered kid from Oceanside, Long Island, became a corporate titan. The first marker involves his father, Arthur, a struggling midlevel advertising executive whose best intentions were undermined by his bipolar disorder. Arthur’s volatility and frustration destabilized the home they shared with Robert’s mother, Mimi, and his kid sister, Carolyn. “I bore the brunt of his emotional unpredictability,” Iger writes of his dad. “I never felt threatened by his moods, but I was acutely aware of his dark side…. I can distinctly recall sitting in my room on the second floor of our house, knowing by the sound of the way he opened and shut the door and walked up the steps whether it was happy or sad Dad.” By the time Bob headed off to Ithaca College, he adds, “I was determined not to live a life of disappointment.”
Case in point: Iger initially planned to be a TV news anchor. But his first gig, as a cable-station weatherman in Ithaca, proved to be a mediocrity. So he quit.
Shortly thereafter, however, one of Iger’s relatives helped him wangle a job at ABC television in Manhattan, where Iger worked as a glorified gofer on everything fromAll My ChildrentoThe Dick Cavett Show. And so began Iger’s climb up the ladder at ABC (which in 1985 was bought by Capital Cities Communications and renamed Capital Cities/ABC). By 1989, he was running ABC Entertainment—this despite the fact that he’d basically never read a TV script. Notwithstanding some rookie mistakes—airingCop Rock, for example—Iger lifted the network out of a slump, thanks to his skill at picking hits both highbrow (Twin Peaks, NYPD Blue) and less so (America’s Funniest Home Videos). By the mid-1990s, when he became president and COO of Capital Cities/ABC, Iger was bouncing between New York and Los Angeles so frequently that it took a toll on his then-wife, Susan Iger, and their daughters, Katie and Amanda. The couple filed for divorce in 1992.
Disney entered the picture in 1995, when it bought Capital Cities/ABC, and a power struggle developed between Disney CEO
and the company’s second-in-charge, Michael Ovitz, the former CAA super-agent who took Sun Tzu’sThe Art of Wara tad literally. “When the two people at the top of the company have a dysfunctional relationship,” Iger writes, “there’s no way that the rest of the company beneath them can be functional.”
Ovitz was out after 16 months—albeit with a $100 million parachute—but the weirdness lingered at the top. At times, Iger writes, Eisner treated him like a bona fide next-in-line; at other times, Eisner seemed to feel that Iger had an eye out for his job—a claim Iger denies. (A person familiar with Eisner’s thinking says the former CEO never feared that Iger was out to take his job and that he always viewed Iger as the best candidate to succeed him.)
But Eisner had reason to worry. By the late 1990s, the famed Disney Animation studio had begun churning out a stream of meh:Hercules, Lilo & Stitch, Brother Bear. Disney’s biggest successes (Toy Story, The Incredibles) stemmed from its partnership with Pixar Animation, whose owner,
mocked Disney and effectively ended the relationship. The situation grew so dire that Walt Disney’s nephew, Roy, began calling for Eisner’s head. After Eisner received his own golden kiss-off, in 2005, the ensuing succession battle grew so ugly that the normally unflappable Iger sought emergency treatment for a heart attack. No, a doctor replied, “you’re having a classic anxiety attack.”
Even after he won the job, Iger was widely viewed as a half-measure CEO.Fortuneasked, “Is Disney’s No. 2 an unsung leader or a dutiful lackey?”
Iger won the jobby campaigning for it—literally. He compiled a “campaign playbook” in which he envisioned a Disney that harnessed advanced technology to produce content with global reach.
That Iger eventually persuaded Steve Jobs, of all people, to sell Pixar to Disney was the first sign that Iger was no short-timer. The move also revealed the secret to his success: managing tricky relationships. “A truly wonderful partnership didn’t happen by happenstance,” recalls Jobs’s wife,
Laurene Powell Jobs.
“They were very close. That’s what you get when trust becomes a foundation.” She adds: “Steve felt that Bob ‘got it.’ In Steve’s parlance, that’s high praise. If somebody’s got it, that means he sees around corners.”
The most poignant passage in Iger’s book details his unlikely friendship with Jobs, which was cemented just minutes before the $7.4 billion deal was publicly announced in 2006. Jobs pulled Iger aside and confided that he had cancer. “Steve, why are you telling me this?” Iger asked. “And why are you telling me now?”
“I am about to become your biggest shareholder and a member of your board,” Jobs replied. “And I think I owe you the right, given this knowledge, to back out of the deal.”
Both the deal and the friendship thrived until Jobs’s death in 2011. Iger was among the small group who attended the burial. Their venture has since produced 15 movies and earned almost $11 billion. After the Pixar deal, Iger says, “The perception of this company from within and without changed right away.”
Disney was the cool kid again, to the point that Iger endeavored to acquire two more superstar companies run by domineering figures. Target one, Marvel Entertainment, controlled by the reclusive Ike Perlmutter. Target two was Lucasfilm Ltd., keeper of
Star Wars empire.
A Wild Ride
Photos of Iger over the years from his new book, The Ride of a Lifetime
“With the cast ofTwin Peaksin 1990, not long after being promoted from number two at ABC TV to head of ABC Entertainment. The learning curve was steep.”
Courtesy The Walt Disney Company
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The fact that Iger landed both fish (in 2009 and 2012, respectively) had plenty to do with his checkbook: Disney paid $4 billion per company. But neither deal would have transpired without the Iger factor. Both Perlmutter and Lucas admired his relationship with Jobs, who personally vouched for Iger. “They can see from the start that he’s no bullshit,” says his friend Oprah Winfrey, who’s known Iger since they both worked for ABC television. “What you see is who he really is, and if you’re around him long enough, you figure that out—that it’s not a facade.”
Iger and his second wife, Willow Bay, the former CNN news anchor who now serves as dean of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, occupy a grand house designed by Paul R. Williams in Brentwood, where they have raised their two sons, Will and Max. The couple, who married in 1995, tend to eschew the Nobu scene for dinners at home. They spend most evenings either working, reading or screening movies in their state-of-the-art home theater. Recent favorites includeA Star Is BornandRocketman. “Bob definitely is more of a private person,” Bay says. “He is determined to spend time with the family side of his life. And if you ask any of his four kids—two different generations of them—they’ll tell you the same.”
Last year the couple sold a five-bedroom apartment on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue for $18.75 million, and Iger flies by corporate jet exclusively—a security requirement, Disney says. A large model boat holds a prominent place in his office at Disney headquarters, which also features a chess set populated withStar Warsfigures. “A gift from Lucasfilm,” Iger says, excitedly grabbing a stormtrooper rook. “Made by 3-D printer.”
In 2017, Disney paid Iger $36.3 million in compensation; a year later, the figure jumped to a staggering $65.6 million. The big bump stemmed from his handling of an especially convulsive and uncertain two-year period that included a series of very public crises. The trouble began in 2016, when Iger learned that the madman who killed 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, was believed to have initially targeted Disney World, and that two Disney employees had been among the victims. Two days later, a toddler was killed by an alligator at a Disney World hotel.
Meantime, Disney’s stock value was sinking. The company’s marquee TV properties, ESPN and ABC television, were being threatened. More and more cable TV subscribers were cutting the cord in favor of Netflix, Amazon and other burgeoning streaming giants. And it sure didn’t help when Roseanne Barr’s racist tweet compelled Disney to ax the star of ABC’s most promising new show.
In an effort to find new ways to deliver content, Iger acquired a little-known company called BAMTech, a platform that helped Major League Baseball stream content to consumers. Disney would harness BAMTech’s technology to build Disney+, a streaming service with the scale to take on Netflix, Amazon and other potential competitors (including forthcoming streaming services from Apple, NBCUniversal and WarnerMedia). Where once Disney would license its vast library of films and TV shows to Netflix, now Disney+ would offer subscribers exclusive access to the whole kingdom.
The coup de grâce came in 2017, when Iger received a phone call from
(the chairman of Fox and executive chairman of News Corp, which publishesThe Wall Street Journal) inviting him to have a glass of wine at his Bel Air home. The two men had known each other casually for years and had often discussed the media landscape. But when they met, Iger assumed the mogul was doing some political reporting.
Murdoch playfully asked: “Are you running for president?”
“No, I’m not,” Iger replied.
He was, in fact, mulling a White House run in 2020. Prodded by key Democrats, Iger had spent months studying policy papers and consulting various politicians. But he wasn’t about to reveal this to Murdoch.
As it turned out, though, Murdoch had another concern: He cited the threats to their respective businesses, including his entertainment studio, 21st Century Fox, which was struggling to keep up with the industry-wide trend toward consolidation and new-media platforms.
Iger called shortly thereafter and asked if Murdoch wanted to talk more and to discuss a potential Fox-Disney deal.
“Yes,” Murdoch replied.
In an interview, Murdoch says he considers Iger “a man whose word you could take” and confirms this account of their negotiations.
The ensuing $71.3 billion mega-deal meant that Disney now has taken a big leap in the race for streaming supremacy, one that will ultimately allow Disney+ access to all of Fox’s most lucrative movies (Titanic, Avatar) and TV series (The Simpsons), plus some of its key networks (FX, Hulu, National Geographic Channel). The confluence of events that created Disney+ are a testament to Iger’s timing—but only up to a point, he says: “Did I see that Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, National Geographic would have real value in this crazy world that we now live in? I did. Did I believe ultimately that technology was going to become essential to reaching a consumer more effectively, in more modern ways? Yes. So it’s not coincidental.” He grins. “But I did not know in 2004 that in 2019, we’d be doing this.”
Disney+, which launches on November 12, is perhaps the highest-stakes venture Iger has pursued at Disney. “It is a vivid example of the value of the brands and the intellectual property that we create,” says Iger. “I don’t really think that there are many companies that are in the same position.”
And yet Iger’s $65.6 million payday came just as the national uproar over income inequality was spiking. The tension got downright meta when Iger was called out by Walt Disney’s great-niece, Abigail Disney, who deemed it insane that Iger’s pay was 1,424 times that of the median Disney employee. She urged Iger and other top Disney executives to spread the wealth to low-level workers, who start at $15 an hour.
“I’m not saying anything publicly about Abby,” Iger says evenly. “I’m extremely proud of the efforts that we’ve made as a company to support our employees. Under my watch, we’ve created tens of thousands of new jobs.” He adds: “What I make is a function of the job that I have, the industry that I’m in, the way people who run companies like ours are compensated and the fact that Disney is both the largest of the media companies and has been among the most successful.”
He notes that Disney is one of the few companies that pay tuition for all hourly employees for vocational training, college or graduate school. And Iger is widely credited with making Disney’s culture more progressive. The company that refused to distribute Michael Moore’sFahrenheit 9/11, which criticized President
George W. Bush,
is now led by a CEO who greenlitBlack Pantherand quit his post on a White House advisory council after Trump pulled out of the Paris climate accords.
Ultimately, though, Iger didn’t see a future in the White House. He says the decision was prompted by family considerations and the timing of the Fox deal. He also says there’s no chance he will reconsider.
“Him staying at Disney is their gain and the country’s loss,” Winfrey says. “If he had run for president, I would be out there canvassing right now…. I’d be going door to door…. And I’d be saying, ‘Let me tell you about
Fifteen years ago, when Iger became CEO, Bay reminded him that “the average tenure for a Fortune 500 CEO is less than four years.” Since then, Iger has re-upped four times. But his current contract, which is set to expire in 2021, will be his last, Iger says. Firmly.
Now that he’s pushing 70, he says he can’t imagine spending potentially his last 10 vital years in an all-consuming work environment. He says he’s healthier now than he’s ever been, in part because he’s learned “how to keep things in perspective.” He adds: “Some of that comes with age. A lot of it comes with experience…. I’ve had a tremendous marriage—a true partnership with my wife, Willow. Even through [the Disney] succession process, she kept reminding me: ‘Look, I didn’t marry you because of your title, and you’re not who you are because of what you do, per se. There are other things about you and other things in your life that are more important.’ ”
“What you see is who he really is, and if you’re around him long enough, you figure that out—that it’s not a facade.”
Reading, for instance. Iger grabs his iPad and scrolls through his current favorites (he says he rarely reads books by other corporate titans): Richard Russo’s novelChances Are…, C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower stories,
The Second Mountain:The Quest for a Moral Life.
Iger envisions a kind of semi-retirement that combines “play, smelling the roses, some kind of work—possibly as a mentor to start-up businesses—and giving back. Giving back is equal to play…. I have something that is particularly on my mind right now, which is homelessness, but I’m still formulating.”
Though he’s been unwilling to publicly anoint his successor, Iger is confident that Disney will avoid another bloody drama when he steps down. “We’ve had numerous conversations about it, and there’s a plan in place,” he says. But he won’t name names. “At some point, the [Disney] board will feel that it’s proper to do so. But we’re not there yet.”
Meantime, Iger’s goals for his final two years at Disney are “very, very clear,” he says. He’s eager to produce theBlack Panthersequel (anticipated to open in May 2022), but not so eager to reveal details about it. (He grudgingly allows that director Ryan Coogler is “just beginning the process of outlining the story.”) Beyond that, Iger says, “The priorities are to succeed in the direct-to-consumer space, primarily with Disney+, and to integrate the two companies effectively, smoothly—on a timely basis.” Naturally.
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