NOTE: Many of the thoughts in this piece represent those of the author and not necessarily Theme Park Tourist, its owners, or its sponsors.
It happened. The unthinkable, the unimaginable, the unprecedented... In a late-evening announcement on Sunday, November 20 2022, it was made official: beleaguered and bemoaned CEO of The Walt Disney Company Bob Chapek was gone. Less than three years after he was hastily elevated into the position (replacing long-time precessor and beloved visionary Bob Iger) and just days after announcing he intended to launch waves of layoffs and hiring freezes in his data-oriented, revenue-maximizing approach to leading the world's largest entertainment company, Chapek had been given a pink slip himself.
In his place would stand... Bob Iger, again. Returning to The Walt Disney Company he shepherded until February 2020, Iger would serve as both Chapek's predecessor and successor. In an internal email to Cast, Iger announced with "gratitude and humility – and I must admit, a bit of amazement" that he would return to his former post, officially becoming the CEO of Disney again.
As for Chapek? Well... though Disney's Board formally thanked Chapek for his leadership during the pandemic and wished him well, the multi-million-dollar golden parachuting of a divisive CEO speaks volumes. And now, with Chapek's involvement with The Walt Disney Company officially concluded, we wanted to reflect on Chapek's era with four important things to consider when we discuss Chapek and his short-lived tenure as Disney's CEO.
1. Bob Chapek was placed in an impossible situation, and didn't have a good path out.
Frankly, any understanding of Bob Chapek has to start with a note on Bob Iger. We actually dove deep into both Bobs' histories in our must-read "Who's Who At Disney" feature – a great place to start! But In short, we have to remember that Chapek's predecessor (and now successor) Bob Iger was CEO of the Walt Disney Company for fifteen years. In those years, he was a transformational force in Hollywood – the man who acquired Pixar, Lucasfilm, Marvel, and 20th Century, turning Disney into the unbeatable giant in the Content Wars that we know today.
Of course, Iger also famously set up a number of executives (most famously, Jay Rasulo and Tom Staggs) as potential successors. Ultimately, none of them worked out, with Iger continuously extending his contract by a few years at a time, all while remaining one of the most powerful (and importantly, most well-respected and well-liked) figures in entertainment. With Iger plugging away at successful acquisitions, Park expansions, and the development of Disney+, the multi-year process of training a second-in-command simply fizzled out... until COVID-19.
Suddenly, just as the global repurcussions of COVID-19 became clear and markets began to disintegrate, Bob Iger announced that he was exiting before the end of his contract (which had been extended several times) and that, "effective immediately," Bob Chapek would assume the role. Surely, Chapek wasn't the hand-picked, mentored, and ready replacement Iger had hoped for, so we have to acknowledge that in many ways, Chapek was set up to fail.
Accepting the job pretty much assured Chapek would be a "fall guy" whose primary purpose was to keep Iger's legacy from being dented. Obviously, it worked. It's not that we shouldn't celebrate Iger's return as a "prodigal son" whose proven track record with Disney is a comfort for fans and financiers alike... but let's also remember that Iger largely avoided the stresses of the pandemic and his 11th hour return to replace his failed successor is being viewed as a victory (and it is!)...
... But Iger's reinstatement should also be recognized as something of an embarassement... Downplayed as it may be, a secondary headline to Iger's return is surely that his succession plan failed spectacularly... and more to the point, that he could've (or even might've) known it would... Which brings us to the second thing we have to acknowledge about Chapek.
2. Bob Chapek wasn't well-suited to be CEO of The Walt Disney Company, and everyone knew it.
Seriously. Fans reported on Chapek's ascent as a "worst case scenario" for the company; financial markets recoiled; even Iger was supposedly quite disapproving of Chapek's ensuing moves.
But c'mon. Chapek did not suddenly appear from the mist. This was a man with three decades of experience in Disney's products division. Chapek was the proud poster child of the "finance guy." In his thirty years with Disney, Chapek's stance was clear. He was the hard-nosed, data-oriented, budget hawk with practically zero experience in the "creative" side of the company. Chapek was the guy who trusted spreadsheets, not his gut. He was inexperienced in dealing with Hollywood talent; saw the theme parks as "brand loyalty centers" meant to be filled with IP and bolstered by upcharges; laser-focused on what he called the "synergy machine"; and hellbent on reorganizing the company around streaming – a venture that precisely no one has figured out how to make profitable.
So let's be clear: Chapek didn't pull a "bait and switch." His management style wasn't a surprise. He was exactly the kind of CEO anyone – including fans, entertainment insiders, Bob Iger and the Board of Disney – knew he would be.
And until the stock price began to reel, Disney's Board actually extended his contract until 2025 – an overt approval of his finance-focused regime, his restructuring of the company, his dismissal of many "Iger-loyal" creatives, his penny-pinching relocations, his bare-bones staffing models and upcharge-focused processes for the parks, and even his final act: announcing tough times ahead with layoffs, hiring freezes, and a straight-from-the-Paul-Pressler-playbook formation of a "cost structure taskforce."
It's not Bob Chapek's fault that he was pushed into the frontlines at the worst possible moment in the economy's history. It's also not Bob Chapek's fault that people didn't like that his management style was... well... the same he'd used for three decades at Disney. But before to get to thinking that we're Chapek fans or that we're willing to make excuses for the now-dismissed former CEO, read on...