Tom Staggs
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Disney’s long corporate runoff has come to an end with the promotion of Tom Staggs to chief operating officer.

The Walt Disney Parks and Resort chairman has long been seen as the front-runner for the post that  squarely positions him as the heir-apparent to Bob Iger as Disney’s CEO once the chief executive’s contract expires in mid-2018. Although Iger said last fall that he would be naming an exec to COO post in early 2015, Staggs was only officially informed of his promotion on Wednesday.

“Tom is an incredibly experienced, talented and versatile executive who has led Parks and Resorts during a time of unprecedented growth and expansion, including the construction of Shanghai Disney Resort. His proven ability to lead a business as well as his successful tenure as Disney’s former CFO make him an ideal Chief Operating Officer, expanding his portfolio into all the company’s businesses,” Iger said in announcing the promotion.

Staggs will continue to head the parks and resorts division for the time being until a successor is named. Most of Disney’s division heads will now jointly report to Iger and Staggs, with the exception of CFO Jay Rasulo as well as the Jayne Parker, head of human resources, communications chief Zenia Mucha and general counsel Alan Braverman.

“It’s a privilege to step into this role, and I am humbled and honored by the opportunity. I look forward to working more closely with Bob and the talented senior management team across the company to continue to build Disney’s future through unparalleled creativity, innovative technology and global expansion,” Staggs said.

Staggs and Iger declined further comment on the promotion and what it means for Disney.

Disney sources emphasized that Staggs’ promotion to COO does not give him a lock on inheriting the top job from Iger. His strategic vision and leadership skills will be closely evaluated by the Disney board during the next three years. “By no means is this a guarantee,” said a source close to the situation.

Iger consulted with Disney directors on Staggs’ promotion at the most recent board meeting, on Jan. 29, but the final decision was Iger’s alone.

For the past five years Staggs, 54, has been in a contest with Rasulo for the No. 2 spot. The horse race began in earnest in January 2010 when the two executives swapped jobs — a move seen as Iger’s effort to give Staggs operational experience to complement his background in strategic planning and finance. A 25-year Disney veteran, Staggs spent 11 years as Disney’s CFO prior to taking the reins of the parks division.

Rasulo, who is well-liked on Wall Street for his straightforward manner, raised eyebrows recently with his decision to not sign a new contract with Disney even after his previous deal expired at the end of January. That was a clear signal that Rasulo was hedging his bets against the outcome of the bake-off with Staggs.

At present Rasulo is working on an at-will basis without a contract, and sources said there are no indications that he will set a new deal. It is widely believed that he will leave Disney.

Rasulo is likely to be a prime candidate to be recruited to fill CEO vacancies. His background in finance for the world’s largest media company, coupled with his operational experience at the parks, makes him an appealing hire for all manner of brick-and-mortar and online retailers.

Although Iger’s departure date has been twice postponed with contract extensions, he is set to retire from Disney in three years. By multiple accounts, Iger has not been ready to move into retirement mode, especially after flirting with but ultimately rejecting the possibility of seeking political office in New York or California.

Moreover, under Iger’s leadership Disney has reached new heights of size and success. On Wednesday, the company’s stock price closed at over $100 dollars per share after Tuesday’s stellar quarterly earnings results that saw Disney’s profit rise 19%.

By many accounts, Staggs is an executive who is very much in the Iger mold, notably by keeping a low-profile in the media and in the broader entertainment biz. He’s well-liked and described as “warm” by Disney insiders. He grew up in the small town of Excelsior, Minn., about a half-hour outside of Minneapolis. He’s been married to his wife, Melanie, for nearly 20 years and is the father of three boys.

“He’s a very good dealmaker. He’s smart as hell and he is very personable — that’s a good combination,” Michael Eisner said of Staggs in an interview last week, prior to Disney’s formal announcement on Thursday. Eisner, who was Disney CEO from 1984 through 2005, identified Staggs as a comer early on.

Staggs came to Disney because of his background in investment banking at a time when the Mouse House needed an experienced dealmaker to handle complex transactions like the launch of the Mighty Ducks NHL team and the acquisition of Capitol Cities/ABC. Eisner noted that Staggs could have left Disney years ago for a CEO post at another company.

“He’s a major piece of talent who has hung in there and been patient,” Eisner told Variety .

Staggs’ track record at the parks and resorts unit has been mostly strong. He inherited a number of initiatives that were put in place by the Rasulo regime. One of the biggest bets during Staggs’ tenure has been the huge investment in the high-tech “My Magic Plus” wrist-band system developed to allow guests to schedule their time better at the parks, and of course spend more money. The early returns from the rollout in the Florida parks — based on the strong earnings delivered by the parks division in the most recent quarter — have been promising enough that the company plans to launch the “Magic Plus” service in the rest of its parks.

Another big plus for Staggs is that his stewardship of parks and resorts has generally been well-received by Disney’s legion of parks workers (aka “cast members”).

The boss earned high marks with Disney’s foot soldiers by surprising beloved Disney Imagineer Tony Baxter during his session at the 2013 D23 conference for Disney-philes in Anaheim, Calif. Staggs made an unplanned appearance on stage to praise Baxter’s decades of service in developing attractions for the parks. He also unveiled the highest tribute that Disney has to offer — a dedicated window on Main Street, with Baxter listed as the “inventor” for a company dubbed “Main Street Marvels.”

By his own admission, Staggs has made an effort to stay removed from the high life that comes with working in the entertainment industry.

In 2012, while accepting the Distinguished Alumni Award from Minnetonka High School, Staggs noted that showbiz was “the most self-congratulatory industry there is on the planet,” and he jokingly told the crowd that in his then-22 years in entertainment, he’d never accepted an award at a major awards show such as the Oscars, Emmys or Grammys.

“I don’t get caught up in all the Hollywood glitz and glamour,” Staggs said. At the event, Staggs’ former band teacher, Dan Geldert, described him as being genuine,” “bright,” “a gentleman” and one who strove for “excellence,” even as a teenager. He was a trumpet player back then, landing first chair in the orchestra as well as playing in the marching band and jazz ensemble.

Staggs earned a B.S. in business from the University of Minnesota in 1982 and went on to get his MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business. He worked in investment banking at Minneapolis’ Dain Bosworth and for Morgan Stanley before joining Disney in 1990 as manager of strategic planning. By 1995, he’d advanced to senior VP. He was 37 at the time then-CEO Michael Eisner named him exec VP and CFO.

As CFO Staggs generally got high marks from Disney investors and Wall Street for transparency and responsiveness in reporting the company’s financials.

Staggs has played a more public role during his time at the parks division, which is akin to the company’s storefront operation. He oversees a global workforce of 130,000 spread among six theme parks, including the one under construction in Shanghai; the Disney cruise line, comprising three ships; the vacation ownership program and the Disney-themed vacation resort in Oahu.

Running the division has meant that he’s frequently on stage addressing employees and park guests. It’s a job that requires gut instincts on what consumers will respond to, and meticulous attention to detail on all aspects of the “guest experience.” All told, the parks division is an arena that is vital to maintaining the aura of the Disney brand in the eyes of the average consumer — an advantage that the Mouse’s showbiz competitors simply do not have.

Disney insiders have long said that Staggs has the right demeanor and the people skills to handle the job, but there’s still questions about whether he has the strategic vision to lead a media colossus as sprawling as Disney.

Staggs’ biggest operational challenge to date undoubtedly has been riding herd over the Shanghai park, where the opening has been pushed to the spring of 2016.

The park has the potential to harness the rising tide of the middle class in China and be a huge moneymaker for Disney — one that could drive plenty of other Mouse House biz in the world’s most populous nation. But it could also become a political minefield, given the trickiness that foreign firms have in dealing with the Chinese government and local investors. As Disney learned the hard way from the 1992 launch of Euro Disney (now Disneyland Paris), ensuring that the Shanghai park is attuned to local tastes and customs will be crucial to generating a good first impression.

Plans for the Shanghai park were under way long before Staggs took the parks job from Rasulo, but he has presided over the final planning and construction phase. The reception of the venture, from both its target Chinese consumers and from Disney investors, will amount to a major report card on Staggs’ management skills. Other big initiatives include the collaboration with James Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment on the creation of an “Avatar”-themed Pandora land at Disney’s Animal Kingdom park in Florida. It’s targeted for a 2017 opening.

Staggs’ time at the parks has given him one skill essential to all Disney CEOs — the ability to banter with ease with costumed Disney characters. At the 2011 opening of the revamped “Star Tours” ride at Disneyland, Staggs, cloaked as a Jedi knight, engaged in a strenuous lightsaber battle with Darth Vader before cutting the ribbon, with a lightsaber.

At the 2012 opening of Cars Land at Disney’s California Adventure park, Staggs shared the stage with John Lasseter. Lasseter said after giving it some thought, he decided that Staggs’ personality would best be represented as an automobile with an ice cream truck, to signal the exec’s natural “intelligence, grace and good humor.”

Staggs talks the talk of a future Disney CEO in his public appearances. He frequently cites the guidance in the Disney corporate culture that comes from Walt Disney’s legacy as an innovator and risk-taker. He also calls the late Disney president Frank Wells as a mentor during his earliest years at the company.

Wells, who died in a 1994 helicopter crash, taught him the importance of humility in business, Staggs said in his commencement speech last year to the graduating class of his undergraduate alma mater, the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management.

“Humility is not the same as self-doubt,” Staggs told the crowd.

“The dangerous thing about success is that it can kill your interest in introspection….It takes confidence to admit you don’t have all the right answers. …Humility is just as important to long-term success as self-confidence.”

Staggs surely will get to practice what he preaches in the next three years. Iger’s most recent contract extension keeps him in the chairman-CEO post through June 2018.

Iger, however, is likely to be sympathetic to his lieutenant’s situation. He endured a long apprenticeship under former Eisner after being promoted from ABC chief to president of Disney’s international wing in 1999, and then to Disney president-chief operating officer in 2000. Iger further suffered through widespread rumors that Eisner didn’t think he had the chops to be CEO in the two years leading up to the Disney board’s decision in 2005 to give him the job.

In his 2014 commencement speech, Staggs gave an example of what he called Iger’s keen ability to balance confidence and humility. The two were standing together watching the parade at the opening of Hong Kong Disneyland in 2005 when Iger remarked with concern that none of the passing characters had been created by Disney within the previous 10 years. Iger realized then that Disney Animation was in need of a big injection of creativity.

“That difficult, clear-eyed assessment led to the acquisition of Pixar” in 2006, Staggs told the grads. “It looks like an obvious decision, but at the time it took tremendous confidence and courage for a new CEO.”

Clearly, Staggs has been taking notes.

(Marc Graser contributed to this report)

CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this post stated that Staggs told the crowd at Minnetonka High School in 2012 that he had never attended a major Hollywood awards show. A rep for Staggs said the statement was meant as a joke regarding his acceptance of an award from the high school.

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