For Disney, it’s a small, small world of possible candidates to succeed CEO Iger

A year ago, Thomas Staggs was poised to one day run the world’s largest entertainment company after beating out a longtime rival to be named chief operating officer and heir apparent to Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Robert Iger.

Now Staggs, 55, is on his way out. The final straw was the refusal of Disney’s board of directors to formally name Staggs as Iger’s successor, but trouble had been brewing for some time as Staggs had grown increasingly frustrated in his No. 2 role, according to people with knowledge of the situation.

Staggs was said to be unhappy that some senior managers continued to seek direction primarily from Iger, despite what was supposed to be mostly a dual-reporting arrangement to both Iger and Staggs.

Staggs also had a powerful critic in Isaac Perlmutter, the chief executive of Disney-owned Marvel Entertainment, which is responsible for the blockbuster “Iron Man” and “Avengers” franchises, according to these people, who did not want to jeopardize their relationships by speaking publicly.

Although Perlmutter is not on the board, he is an influential executive and was known to favor former Disney executive Jay Rasulo over Staggs in a years-long competition for the COO role.


Perlmutter, Disney and Staggs all declined to comment.

With Staggs stepping down from his post in May, Disney must now redouble its efforts to find a CEO to succeed Iger after his contract expires in 2018.

Many analysts say the challenges of the job and the lack of an obvious internal candidate point to hiring someone from outside — with one exception.

“To borrow a phrase, the best successor to Bob Iger may very well be Bob Iger,” analyst Anthony DiClemente of Nomura Securities wrote in a research report.

DiClemente suggested that Iger, 65, could extend his contract with the company. He noted that Iger previously lengthened his contract in 2014 — in part to ensure that he would remain in the fold for the launch of the $5.5-billion Shanghai Disney Resort, which opens in June.

Also, a potential next act for Iger fizzled a few months ago. Iger was previously attached to an effort to build a stadium in Carson that would’ve housed two NFL teams. Iger, the non-executive chairman of the venture, would have overseen the $1.7-billion project and would have been given a chance to buy a stake in one of the teams.

The opportunity was seen as a fitting new chapter for Iger, but NFL owners decided in January to back a rival project proposed for Inglewood.

Although Disney is known for its strong corps of executives, the early consensus is that none of them have the depth and breadth of experience to succeed Iger.

“There certainly hasn’t been anyone who has risen to that level at this point,” said Robin Diedrich, an analyst for Edward Jones Research. “Nothing really comes to mind.”

Disney is a more complex company than its entertainment rivals because of the size and scope of its various businesses. The company, which has 185,000 employees, owns and operates a sprawling portfolio of theme parks, has a movie studio that consistently is a top performer, and controls a television empire that boasts crown jewels ABC and ESPN.

Many of Disney’s division heads are relatively new to their posts, and don’t have the long-term tenures in top jobs that the company typically seeks.

Staggs, by comparison, has been with Disney for 26 years, serving as chief financial officer for 12 years and head of the parks and resorts group for five years. He was named chief operating officer in February 2015.

Alan Horn, 73, the respected chief of Disney’s film studio, has had a long career in the movie business, previously serving in high-profile posts at Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox. However, Horn doesn’t have experience overseeing other divisions at Disney, which he joined in 2012.

The company’s TV business is run by Ben Sherwood, who oversees ABC and the entertainment cable channels, and John Skipper, who heads ESPN. Sherwood, 52, has risen quickly through the ranks but has considerable challenges with ABC, the No. 4 broadcast network in the lucrative 18-to-49 demographic. He also has only been in his job for a little more than a year.

Skipper is well regarded and has creative chops, but ESPN’s growth prospects have become increasingly scrutinized by investors in recent months.

Bob Chapek, the chairman of the company’s parks and resorts division, is a 23-year veteran of Disney. But he became head of the unit only last year. He previously ran Disney’s consumer products division.

Disney has a handful of powerhouse executives in charge of companies it has acquired over the last decade: John Lasseter, the chief creative officer of Pixar Animation Studios; and Kathleen Kennedy, the president of Lucasfilm.

Lasseter and Kennedy, 62, are considered strong leaders — and creative forces. But neither has the range of management experience boasted by Staggs or Iger, who has been with Disney since 1996 and previously oversaw the company’s TV business.

Hollywood has been gripped by speculation this week about who might step in to one day replace Iger.

The talk among studio and talent agency executives centered on several bold-faced names, including Sheryl Sandberg and Peter Chernin.

Sandberg is a member of Disney’s board and is the chief operating officer of Facebook. She was a top executive at Google before joining the social networking company. Chernin formerly was the president of News Corp. for more than a decade and currently is chairman of his namesake media and entertainment firm. Sandberg and Chernin declined to comment.

It is too early to tell who might emerge as a legitimate candidate. The complexities of the job preclude many businesspeople — even accomplished ones — from serious consideration, said Laura Martin, an analyst with Needham & Co.

“The list is short and a lot of the people who would be on that list have lots of options,” she said.

Twitter: @DanielNMiller

Times staff writer Meg James contributed to this report.


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