On February 25, 2020, Bob Iger, CEO of immensely successful Disney for the last 15 years, announced he was retiring immediately as CEO and kicking himself upstairs to executive chairman.
As things fell apart over subsequent weeks, I came to assume that this was a rare example of a well-informed elite seeing the handwriting on the wall and deciding at age 69 that he’d earned his retirement and he would now let a younger man deal with the coming crisis.
But I was wrong.
From the New York Times:
The former C.E.O. thought he was riding into the sunset. Now he’s reasserting control and reimagining Disney as a company with fewer employees and more thermometers.
By Ben Smith, April 12, 2020
The Walt Disney Company turned franchises like Marvel and “Star Wars” into the biggest media business in the world, and last fall it was putting the finishing touches on the image of a storied character: its chief executive, Bob Iger.
In late September, Mr. Iger, 69, published “The Ride of a Lifetime,” an engaging work of self-hagiography. The handsome executive, who seriously considered running for president this year, spent the next month on the kind of media tour that Disney is known for: he reveled in the successful start of a streaming service that immediately rivaled Netflix, was hailed as “businessperson of the year” by Time and described as “Hollywood’s nicest C.E.O.” in an article in the The Times by Maureen Dowd. Even his friends wondered if the soft-focus Instagram ads produced for his MasterClass on leadership were a bit much.
It all went so well that Mr. Iger decided it was time to do something he had postponed four times since 2013: retire as C.E.O.
In early December, Disney executives say, he told his board that he was ready to leave. Around that time, a handful of people in Wuhan, China, began developing mysterious coughs.
At the end of January, a few days after Disney was forced to close its Shanghai theme park as the coronavirus spread, Mr. Iger and the board stuck with their plan, agreeing that he would step back to become executive chairman and that the low-profile head of the parks and cruise business, Bob Chapek, would take over immediately as chief executive. They finalized the arrangement even as the stock market began to shudder. And on Feb. 25, they shocked Hollywood with the news that Mr. Iger’s 15-year run had ended.
The seemingly abrupt announcement prompted intense speculation about the reasons for Mr. Iger’s exit. “Sex or health?” one media executive who knows him texted another that night. Two weeks later, a different question emerged: Had Mr. Iger, with his deep ties to China and legendary timing, seen the coronavirus about to devastate his global realm? Did he get out just in time?
Mr. Iger, who has always carefully managed his image, told me in an email, there was no more than met the eye.
“No surprises … nothing hidden … nothing different or odd to speculate about ….,” he wrote, ellipses and all.
In fact, people close to Mr. Iger and the company said in interviews that the real question wasn’t whether he saw the crisis coming — but whether his focus on burnishing his own legacy and assuring a smooth succession left him distracted as the threats to the business grew. No big media company is more dependent on its customers’ social and physical proximity than Disney, with its theme parks and cruise lines. Few have been hit harder by the pandemic.
And now, Mr. Iger has effectively returned to running the company. After a few weeks of letting Mr. Chapek take charge, Mr. Iger smoothly reasserted control …
So Iger is now saying he was clueless then, but now that he knows what is going on, he’s back in power.
There is no Inner Party who can explain how the world really works, like at the end of 1984 and Brave New World. Nobody knows anything.
Conspiracy theorists have much too high an estimation of the capabilities of the people in charge.
Meanwhile, in Town & Country:
No One Retires Anymore
Retirement—now? Or Never? How the American dream of golf and the golden years got turned on its head. And what that means for the rest of us.
BY JOEL STEIN, APR 9, 2020