Bob Iger on Shanghai Disney, Parting With His Chosen Successor, and His Pursuit of Perfection

Bob Iger Variety Showman of the
Bryce Duffy for Variety

Nothing about Bob Iger’s middle-class upbringing in New York, or his years as a television and radio major at Ithaca College, or his long run up the corporate media ladder at ABC and Disney, suggests that he would find a muse in a Tokyo subway station.

But it is there, in a tiny sushi bar, that the chairman and CEO of the Walt Disney Co. finds inspiration, in a wizened nonagenarian who spends most of his waking hours sculpting fine slices of blue fin and eel and combining them with rice that is grown exclusively for the restaurateur.

What captivates Iger about 91-year-old Jiro Ono, reputedly the world’s finest sushi chef, is his unflinching commitment: Never stop striving to improve yourself and your work. The Japanese call such master craftsmen shokunin, and a generation of top Disney executives has now been introduced to the shokunin spirit by Iger. The CEO made Ono a focus at one management retreat, urging the team to watch the 2011 documentary film “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” The lesson is that work is a calling, requiring a constant drive for betterment — not just for the work’s sake, but for the growth of the self and others.

“I’ll continue to climb, trying to reach the top,” Ono says in the film, “but no one knows where the top is.”

Those who work with Iger — Variety’s 2016 Showman of the Year — say he, too, approaches the advancement of all-things-Disney like a calling. They use words like “relentless,” “intense,” and “focused” to describe him. But is he a shokunin?

Yes, Iger says, without hesitation.

The Jiro film struck the CEO as an epiphany five years ago, when he was already being lauded for Disney’s remarkable turnaround. “There’s a whole notion of ‘[If there are] no more mountains to climb, what’s going to drive you?’” Iger says. “What hit me more than anything was, ‘Well, wait a minute — don’t ever stop wanting to be better — helping others to be better.’ ”

Ceaseless focus and attention to detail have paid off handsomely for Iger, 65, in a career that has made him one of the world’s most acclaimed and recognizable business leaders.

He took the reins at Disney in 2005, after years of internal dissension, a rebellion by two key one-time board members, a shareholder revolt, and a hostile takeover attempt by Comcast. The new Disney boss quickly won over dissidents Roy E. Disney and Stanley Gold and repaired a badly frayed relationship with Apple’s Steve Jobs. On his second day on the job, he told Disney’s board he wanted to buy Pixar Animation Studios, which its CEO, Jobs, controlled. About three months later, he inked the blockbuster $7.4 billion purchase of the Emeryville, Calif.-based studio.

Ride of His Life
Seven years after China OK’d Shanghai Disney, Bob Iger enjoys the result.

It was the first in a series of audacious, big-ticket purchases that have come to define Disney in the Iger era. By buying Marvel Studios in 2009, and Lucasfilm — owner of the “Star Wars” franchise — in 2012, Iger has guaranteed his media company the breadth of name-brand characters and stories that competitors can’t match.

The intellectual properties have created a string of movie mega-hits — four $1 billion-plus blockbusters this year — and the kind of synergies that are easier to talk about than execute. Disney has 11 film franchises that each spin off consumer products generating $1 billion or more in retail sales. The 2013 princess fantasy “Frozen” is featured in five attractions and character presentations at Disney World in Orlando, Fla., alone.

The conglomerate’s signature theme parks and resorts have also expanded immensely under Iger — most dramatically with the June opening of the Shanghai Disney Resort, which has been drawing 1 million visitors a month and could break even as soon as next year. Iger calls the park one of his crowning glories.

Over the course of Iger’s 11-year run, Disney’s operating profit has more than tripled, to $15.7 billion for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. And the company’s stock has more than quadrupled in value, to nearly $100 a share.

Iger’s tenure has not been without its challenges. The dominant sports network ESPN — an earnings engine for most of his term — has seen subscriptions shrink, as younger viewers “cut the cord” with traditional cable, buy lower-cost cable packages, or find content online. More than 10 million subscribers have fled ESPN in the past five years.

No matter how many movie hits or theme park attendance records, Iger routinely gets grilled about how he will stanch the bleeding at ESPN. His answer has been to explore solutions through technology, including the $1 billion acquisition this year of a 33% stake in BAMTech, a spinoff of Major League Baseball’s website, which will collaborate with ESPN on multi-sport subscription streaming services.

With Iger’s planned June 2018 retirement within sight, employees and investors want to know what he and the company will do to sustain their winning streak — most important, by finding the right successor. Chief operating officer Tom Staggs was Iger’s chosen heir, but Staggs was forced to step down last April amid reports that Iger and the Disney board did not think their No. 2 had the creative chops for the top job.

Iger sat with Variety last week to discuss his career, the triumphs like opening Shanghai Disney, the painful parting with Staggs, and his musings on life after Disney, including the possibility of running for political office.

He describes a grueling schedule that has him up every day by 4:15 a.m. and quickly into a merciless 45-minute bout with his vertical climbing machine. A jaunt on a Disney corporate jet often follows — so often that his assistants calculate Iger has spent the equivalent of an entire year in the air. Since 1999, he has made 40 business trips to China, eight this year alone.

Many of his lieutenants, not to mention investors and Wall Street bankers and analysts, suggest that they would be thrilled if Iger — who has extended his contract once before — would re-up again.

But the CEO notes that he will have completed 44 years of service for ABC and Disney by the time June 2018 rolls around. He says he looks forward to having more time to explore other things, to travel when he is not rushed.

“There’s a whole notion of ‘If there are no more mountains to climb, what’s going to drive you?’ What hit me more than anything was, ‘Well, wait a minute — don’t ever stop wanting to be better.’ ”
Bob Iger

“I have this lust for the so-called South Seas. I would like to explore every corner of the Pacific. You know the song: ‘To everything turn, turn, turn, there is a season.’ It’s just time.”

After graduating from Ithaca College in 1973, you didn’t jump right into business. Why?
Walter Cronkite was at the peak of his power and popularity as an anchor, and I set my sights on being Walter Cronkite. [Laughing] Because why not have lofty goals? I started at the entry level of entry levels, a little cable channel in Ithaca. I was working as a weatherman and a feature reporter. I could tell pretty quickly that, while I might have had the ambition, I didn’t have the confidence on the air. I just didn’t think I was good enough or quick enough or confident enough.

I am kind of curious about my decision now, because my career in many respects has been punctuated by acts of tenacity and perseverance. I don’t know what changed. Well, one thing is, I’m 65 years old now and have been at it for 42 years. I’ve now accumulated enough experience to feel much more confident.

When you happened on the documentary film about the sushi master Jiro Ono about five years ago, his story was compelling to you.
Here was a guy who was 88 years old and had already won Michelin stars and the distinction of running one of the best restaurants in the world. He had achieved brilliance and the success that comes with that. And yet he was striving to do better. It’s the whole notion of the relentless pursuit of perfection. I loved that concept.

As a leader, is it hard to instill that kind of ambition in your executives while acknowledging that they have their own lives and interests outside of work?
Yes. There is a human side to it that I try to apply and consider. [But] the harder thing is to balance with the reality that not everything is perfect. In the normal course of running a company this big, you’re going to see, every day, things that are not as great as you would have hoped or wanted them to be. You have to figure out how to absorb that without losing your sense of optimism, which is part of leadership — without losing faith, without wanting to go under the covers and not come out, without being down or angry to a counterproductive level, and without demanding something of people that is unfair, inhuman, impossible.

Roone Arledge, your former boss at ABC Sports, was someone you admired. He was known for pushing for more, right until a story or a show went on the air, right?
He demanded perfection. I both respected and loved him — but there were times when I thought that what he was asking of us was just either not possible or not human. It didn’t matter how much time you had left; it didn’t matter if [people] had to stay up all night. It didn’t matter if it was their birthday, their anniversary, their kid’s bar mitzvah, whatever it was. You went in and you did it. And at some point you did it for him, too, because you appreciated what he was trying to accomplish.

Did that experience teach you to take a different approach?
If someone comes to you with, “It’s my kid’s graduation,” you don’t tell them, “Sorry, you can’t go to that.” You just don’t do that. You figure out some other way.

But I’m amazed with how many times someone says, “Well, we just can’t make it better” or, “We’re out of time” or whatever. Saying no becomes such a cheap and easy way out. [My response is], “Wait a minute, yes you can.” Or, “How about trying as hard as you can?”

How do you get involved with Disney’s films and TV shows?
Because I have really a lot of talented people working for me , my role often is to come in as an extra last pair of eyes on a lot of things. “I don’t understand the plot.” Or, “What is driving this character?” Or, “Where is this in the timeline of the story?” You provide a perspective that is often really important to people. Sometimes by coming to something fresh, you see things that they don’t see.

Game Plan
Iger, who got his start in ABC’s sports division, is enabling direct sales of ESPN to consumers to try to offset cord-cutting.

You spent most of the past two decades helping build Shanghai Disney, which opened in June. You even tasted more than 200-plus items on restaurant menus there. Can you give a specific instance of how you applied your critical eye?
There was stonework on the side of the castle. It was just pure stone. I said, “It’s supposed to look old. It’s an old castle. There’s no moss growing on it. It would look at lot better if there was some green moss on it. It would look more real.”

I am guessing there is moss on that stone.
There is moss on there now…. That’s not a criticism. They’re looking at a thousand things. I’m looking at as much as I can. Now, that sounds like micromanagement. I don’t mean it to sound that way. What it is — it’s just perspective.

You’ve taken dozens of pictures of fans enjoying Shanghai Disney. You said you particularly get a kick out of seeing smiling families crowding around a statue of Walt Disney for snapshots. Were there other moments at the opening when you knew the park was a hit?
You could go into Pirates of the Caribbean and hear the whole crowd, in moments you desperately wanted them to react, and they’d all go “Aaahhh.” And they’re all taking pictures. They had never seen anything like it.

The thought of ever building Disneyland in China, which we knew growing up as “Red China,” had to be completely out of the realm of possibility for anyone. And here we are in 2016, introducing this glorious product that Walt created to China in ways that are just so unbelievably entertaining, and being appreciated by the people there.

The incredible highs and lows of your job were epitomized that week. The day before the Shanghai ribbon-cutting, a 2-year-old boy was killed by an alligator at a Disney resort in Florida. In the midst of dozens of media interviews at the Shanghai park, you called the Hale family of Nebraska, who lost their son, Lane. What was that like?
I haven’t disclosed the nature of the conversation. They were very gracious about it. Considering what they were feeling, it was incredible of them just to take the call.

How did you balance out the job you had to do at Shanghai and that new crisis?
You’re directing the organization to deal with this problem — this horrible tragedy. There is that. And then, at the same time, you’re immersed in what you’ve been feeling, which is one of the biggest triumphs and highs of your career. Not only do you want to feel that, and appreciate it for the accomplishment that it is, but you’ve also got to go out on a stage and put a big smile on your face.

I think that, more than anything in jobs like this, you learn to really be able to separate or compartmentalize, in some ways, what you’re feeling and what you are doing.

Another big challenge for you and the company has been succession. Tom Staggs was your chosen successor, but was told last spring he was no longer the heir apparent. What was it like to tell your right hand he wouldn’t get the top job?
There is no way around admitting that it was profoundly difficult on a personal level and on a professional level. I worked closely with Tom both before I was CEO and since. He was CFO when I got this job, and we not only worked side by side, but he helped me a lot in not only getting off the ground as the CEO but in accomplishing a lot of the things that I set out to accomplish.

Bryce Duffy for Variety

And I was rooting for him. I wanted him to succeed. Nothing would have been better for me than for that, on a lot of levels. It would have given me the freedom to kind of live out my days, my tenure here, with the comfort of knowing that I had someone in place who was going to succeed me that I trusted with this great company. So it was hard. It was just very hard.

He left the company In April. Have you spoken with him lately?
I called him three, four weeks ago to see how he was and to say, “Let’s catch up and have lunch.” We haven’t done that yet. Completely cordial on the phone. Haven’t spoken with him since. But I ran into him at a restaurant on the westside before that call; there was nothing awkward about it.

The entertainment industry is confronting an existential challenge: How to move content to the internet and mobile devices while still making money. How is Disney responding?
We know that there is disruption afoot in our business. And what we’re trying to do is figure out how to contend with that disruption. The one thing we’re not trying to do is will it away. It’s not going away. We’re not slowing it down. We’re not stemming the tide. The goal is to ride out the turbulent waters of the disruption and still be afloat.

For the last couple of years, that issue has been particularly pressing at ESPN, which has been losing millions of cable subscribers. How does Disney’s $1 billion investment for a one-third stake in BAMTech — the Major League Baseball web spinoff — bolster one of your most important money-makers?
We’re investing in BAMTech as a means of having the technological capability to create a user-face and a platform to sell our stuff directly to consumers, because there’s an inevitability to that for this company.

Some people have been thinking this new streaming service will offer a flat rate, roughly the $6 or $7 a month that customers pay on their cable bill to get ESPN. Is that right?
It’s not going to be that way at all. There will be really variable pricing and multiple packages to consumers. People may just want to subscribe during the football season. Or maybe they want to pay just for a summer, just for a weekend, just for a game. We will have customization and personalization. I think everything ultimately will be on an à la carte basis; a lot of people may subscribe to the whole thing and get a discount for that.

You’ve received acclaim for the businesses you’ve bought, but it’s also important for a CEO to know when to give up on products that don’t work. You got out of the console game publishing business last May when you shut down Disney Infinity. Why?
One of the problems is when you shut something down that you thought was a great idea or invested a lot of money in, you’re admitting failure, and a lot of people don’t want to do that.… But it’s like pleading guilty — then everybody knows it failed. What I’ve tried to do is create an environment at the company where it’s OK to try something new and fail.

I stole a line from a former boss of mine [former Capital Cities/ABC chief executive Dan Burke], who once said, “You could manufacture the greatest, highest-quality trombone oil in the world and feel really good about that position in the marketplace, but at the end, the world still consumes only a few quarts of it a year.” There are things that are never going to be big.

The Pixar, Marvel, and Lucasfilm acquisitions have been big. You’ve received a lot of praise from the heads of those companies, now subsidiaries, for allowing them to preserve their creative cultures. Was there any key to those acquisitions that has been overlooked?
If anything, it’s, “Why did we buy those things and no one else did?” I don’t get described as necessarily being aggressive. I don’t know if “laid-back” is the word. I think, if anything, what I would want people to say about me is, “I think he had guts.” You know?

You haven’t said much about your post-Disney incarnation. People have long speculated that you might run for political office. And Donald Trump showed that someone with no political experience can win. Are you interested?
For a long time, I’ve been thinking about the whole “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” idea. I’m not suggesting that’s what happened last week. But as we saw, Americans have gotten really tired of Washington-based politics, and decided it was time to elect an outsider who had never been in the military or elected office. [For the record, Iger voted for Hillary Clinton and hosted a fundraiser for the Democrat.]

But what about your own aspirations for public office?
I have been intrigued with politics for a long time, and I have thought a lot about running for office — never for president, but for a variety of other offices. Willow [Bay] is dead against it, and has said, “Not with this wife.” [Laughs] My relationship with her is important enough for me to not challenge her in that regard.

Your group bidding to build an NFL stadium in Carson lost out this year to the proposal for an Inglewood stadium for the Rams. Are you looking for another way in to get into professional sports?
I’m not pursuing anything. There is no list. I’m not talking to people. There’s a world out there. There’s a life to lead. My life is full of possibilities and satisfying other curiosities and smelling roses and relaxing a bit.… By the way, I am not suggesting [the transition] won’t be hard. It will be hard.
This job is stimulating and gratifying and I adore the company that I work for and the people I work with. It’s been the E-ticket ride of a lifetime.

Bob Iger’s Favorites
Current and recent books on Robert Iger’s reading list:
“Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS,” Joby Warrick
“The Wright Brothers,” David McCullough
“Born to Run,” Bruce Springsteen
“Tenth of December: Stories,” George Saunders
“Between the World and Me,” Ta-Nehisi Coates
“100 Deadly Skills: The SEAL Operative’s Guide to Eluding Pursuers, Evading Capture, and Surviving Any Dangerous Situation,” Clint Emerson
“Tender Is the Night,” F. Scott Fitzgerald

For his 60th birthday in 2011, Bob Iger made a list of his 60 favorite songs of all time. Here are eight from that list:
“The Times They Are a-Changin’,” Bob Dylan
“Hey Jude,” The Beatles
“Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” Crosby, Stills & Nash
“A Day in the Life,” The Beatles
“Desperado,” The Eagles
“Stand By Me,” Ben E. King
“Mr. Tambourine Man,” Dylan
“When a Man Loves a Woman,” Percy Sledge