Will Disney’s CEO Shuffle Stay on Course for 2015?

With ‘Star Wars,’ Shanghai theme park coming to fruition, speculation grows that Iger may stick around

Bob Iger

(From the pages of the March 26 issue of Variety.)

Two years before Robert Iger is set to step down as CEO of the Walt Disney Co., there’s already talk around Hollywood that the Mouse House chief may not be ready to give up the keys to the Magic Kingdom in 2015 as planned.

The chatter may just be wishful thinking on the part of some at the Mouse House, where Iger remains a popular boss. Shareholders certainly don’t want to see him go, tapping him as both CEO and chairman in 2010, and rewarding him with a $40 million payday last year for boosting Disney’s stock price to record levels.

Technically, Iger will remain at Disney through June 30, 2016, as chairman. But Disney has not determined who will succeed him on March 31, 2015, when he’s skedded to relinquish the CEO title after 10 years in the top job.

In 2015, Disney is expected to see the fruits of big deals that Iger has shepherded, notably the opening of a massive theme park in Shanghai and the first new Star Wars pic harvested from the company’s $4 billion acquisition of Lucasfilm last year. With so much going on, some wonder if the Disney board may try to persuade Iger to extend his term as CEO to see those projects through.

The person who ultimately winds up succeeding him may depend on the fate of one of Iger’s biggest passion projects: the Shanghai Disney Resort.

Iger brokered the deal with the Chinese government in 2009 to build the massive $3.7 billion theme park, currently under construction outside the Chinese city. Disney owns 43% of the project, which will include the park, hotels and restaurants — and will serve as the Mouse’s biggest brand ambassador inside mainland China.

A successful opening would serve as a perfect swan song for the CEO, praised for bolstering Disney’s muscle with the acquisitions of Pixar Animation Studios, Marvel Entertainment and Lucasfilm in less than a decade. It may also determine whether Thomas Staggs will be promoted to CEO.

Staggs has been seen as a contender for the role ever since he became chairman of the Walt Disney Parks and Resorts group in 2010. So is former parks division chief and current CFO Jay Rasulo.

Staggs has overseen the largest expansion of the company’s vacation biz in years, propping up attendance at its parks around the globe with expensive new attractions and overhauls, launching cruise ships and building the Aulani resort in Hawaii.

Staggs previously spent 12 years as chief financial officer. He played a key role in acquiring Capital Cities/ABC, Pixar and Marvel, during which he worked closely with Iger. It’s an impressive resume since joining Disney as a manager of strategic planning in 1990.

However, it could be tough for Iger to leave if there are any delays with the opening of Shanghai Disneyland.

Adding to the activity in 2015, Disney is poised to open a $500 million Avatar-themed section, based on James Cameron’s franchise, inside Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom. And the studio will likely have a banner year beyond Star Wars with the release of The Avengers sequel, Ant-Man, a fifth Pirates of the Caribbean, and an original Pixar pic.

When Iger set his two-step exit strategy at the time of his last exec contract, inked in 2011, he said he was committed to increasing long-term value for shareholders. “(I) am confident we will continue to do so through the successful execution of our core strategic priorities: the creation of high quality, branded content and experiences, the use of technology, and creating growth in numerous and exciting international markets,” he said.

As all those plans comes to fruition, the potential rewards might just be too exciting for Iger to not be CEO.

Other Top CEO Expiration Dates:

Robert Iger is due to exit his job later than two other key execs.

Steve Burke, 54,
CEO of NBCUniversal
Contract expires: Dec. 31, 2014

Chase Carey, 58,
Deputy chairman, president and COO of News Corp.
Contract expires: June 30, 2014

Leslie Moonves, 64,
CEO of CBS Corp.
Contract expires: June 30, 2017