The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons from the Remarkable Career of Bob Iger

I just finished reading “The Ride of a Lifetime” about Bob Iger’s career and his time leading the Walt Disney Company. It was a phenomenal book. As usual, I wanted to spend some time reviewing the book on this website for anyone that is considering reading it.

My main takeaways are below.

The Book’s Introduction is Captivating

In the book’s introduction, Iger spends some time describing the most stressful day of his career. He was visiting Shanghai Disney - a project that took a remarkable _eighteen years _to complete - when tragedy struck.

Before diving into what happened, I wanted to share the following passage about the sheer scale of Shanghai Disney:

“In the sixty-one years since Walt Disney built Disneyland in Anaheim, California, we’d opened parks in Orlando and Paris and Tokyo and Hong Kong. Disney World in Orlando remains our largest, but Shanghai was of a different order than all the others. It was one of the biggest investments in the history of the company. Numbers don’t really do the park justice, but here are a few to give some sense of its scope. Shanghai Disneyland cost about $6 billion to build. It is 963 acres, about eleven times the size of Disneyland. At various stages of its construction, as many as fourteen thousand workers lived on the property. We held casting calls in six cities in China to discover the thousand singers, dancers, and actors who perform in our stage and street shows. Over the eighteen years it took to complete the park, I met with three presidents of China, five mayors of Shanghai, and more party secretaries than I can remember (one of whom was arrested for corruption and banished to northern China in the middle of our negotiations, setting the project back nearly two years).”

So, in the midst of all the commotion surrounding the opening of Shanghai Disney, Bob Iger gets the horrible news that a child has been attacked by an alligator at the Orlando theme park:

“I remember exactly where we were—between Adventure Island and Pirate Cove—when Bob Chapek approached me and pulled me aside. I assumed he had more news from the shooting investigation, and I leaned in so that he could privately give me an update. “There was an alligator attack in Orlando,” Bob whispered. “An alligator attacked a young child. A little boy.” We were surrounded by people, and I hid my rising sense of horror as Bob told me what he knew so far. The attack had occurred at our Grand Floridian Hotel resort at about 8:30 in the evening. It was now around 10:30 A.M. in Shanghai, so, two hours ago. “We don’t know the status of the child,” Bob said.”

Imagine launching one of the largest projects the world has ever seen. Now imagine, on the same day, that a child was dead and your company was going to be blamed for it. That’s what Iger experienced at Shanghai Disney.

Bob Iger Started as a Television and Entertainment Executive

The entertainment industry was not always glamorous when Iger started his career. Below, one of the most shocking passages from the book can help you understand why:

“One of my responsibilities was to wait while the producer reviewed the show, then pass on word to Harry and the studio crew if any updates or fixes needed to be made before it aired in later time zones. One night Harry was ready to move on to martini number two, and he asked me to run back to the studio and find out from the producer where things stood. I ventured into the control room and said, “Harry sent me to find out how it looks.” The producer looked at me with complete disdain. Then he unzipped his pants, pulled out his penis, and replied, “I don’t know. You tell me how it looks.” Forty-five years later, I still get angry when I recall that scene. We’ve become much more aware of the need for fair, equal, non-abusive treatment in the workplace, but it has taken too long.”

Iger’s early days working in television entertainment were important because they introduced him to one of his most important mentors:

“He was also the first person I ever worked for who embraced technological advancements to revolutionize what we did and how we did it. Reverse-angle cameras, slow-motion replays, airing events live via satellite—that’s all Roone. He wanted to try every new gadget and break every stale format. He was looking, always, for new ways to connect to viewers and grab their attention. Roone taught me the dictum that has guided me in every job I’ve held since: Innovate or die, and there’s no innovation if you operate out of fear of the new or untested.”

Before reading this book, I had no idea that Iger had worked under Tom Murphy and Dan Burke, a duo who Warren Buffett said were “probably the greatest two-person combination in management that the world has ever seen or maybe ever will see.”

Key to this duo’s remarkable performance over time was their focus on reducing expenses. Iger was on the receiving end of Murphy and Burke’s notorious cost-cutting measures.

“That wasn’t how Tom and Dan worked. They came in and immediately stripped away all the perks we’d grown used to. No more limos lined up in front of ABC headquarters waiting for executives. No more trips on the Concorde or first-class travel. No more bottomless expense accounts. They saw how our business was changing in a way a lot of people at ABC didn’t want to accept. Margins were getting tighter; competition was tougher. Within our own company, even, ESPN was beginning to find its footing, which eventually would have a direct impact on ABC Sports.”

Just as Capital Cities acquired ABC (and, in turn, Iger), Iger later used acquisitions to drive a great deal of the company’s growth while leading Disney. I discuss this below.

Acquisitions Have Been An Underrated Part of Disney’s Success

One aspect of implementing large-scale acquisitions that I had no context for was how many surprises often surface. Interestingly, even a seasoned senior executive like Bob Iger was not always prepared to face these surprises without a shocked response:

We were in a car in London when I received a call from David Faber, the host of CNBC’s Squawk on the Street. I answered the phone, and David said, “Do you have a comment on this statement?” “What statement?” “Comcast’s statement.” My anxiety immediately spiked. “I don’t know what it is,” I said. David told me that the news had just broken: “Brian Roberts announced that they’re out.” I was so expecting him to say that they’d topped our offer that my instantaneous reaction was “Holy crap!” I paused for a moment, then dictated a more formal statement to him. “You can tell your audience you told me,” I said. Which he did—and he also told them I’d said, “Holy crap.”

Speaking of acquisitions…

Disney Came Very Close to Acquiring Twitter

Perhaps the most surprising takeaway from Iger’s book was exactly how close the company was to acquiring Twitter at one point.

The high-level logic for the proposed transaction made sense: Disney was looking for a way to bolster its technology resources and create a better distribution medium for its content.

Twitter was not the only technology company they thought of:

“When we looked at acquisitions, Google, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook were obviously off the table, given their size, and as far as we knew, none of them was looking to buy us. (Although I did believe that if Steve were still alive, we would have combined our companies, or at least discussed the possibility very seriously.)”

Iger wrote the following about their outreach to Twitter on the transaction:

In the summer of 2016, we expressed interest to Twitter. They were intrigued, but felt they had an obligation to test the market, and so we reluctantly entered into an auction to buy them. By early fall, we’d virtually closed a deal. Twitter’s board supported the sale, and on a Friday afternoon in October, our board gave their approval to finalize a deal. Then, that weekend, I decided not to go through with it. If earlier acquisitions, especially Pixar, were about trusting my instinct that it was the right thing for the company, the acquisition of Twitter was the opposite of that. Something inside me didn’t feel right. Echoing in my head was something Tom Murphy had said to me years earlier: “If something doesn’t feel right to you, then it’s probably not right for you.” I could see clearly how the platform could work to serve our new purposes, but there were brand-related issues that gnawed at me.”

Later, he wrote:

Twitter was a potentially powerful platform for us, but I couldn’t get past the challenges that would come with it. The challenges and controversies were almost too much to list, but they included how to manage hate speech, and making fraught decisions regarding freedom of speech, what to do about fake accounts algorithmically spewing out political “messaging” to influence elections, and the general rage and lack of civility that was sometimes evident on the platform. Those would become our problems. They were so unlike any we’d encountered, and I felt they would be corrosive to the Disney brand. On the Sunday after the board had just given me the go-ahead to pursue the acquisition of Twitter, I sent a note to all of the members telling them I had “cold feet,” and explaining my reasoning for withdrawing. Then I called Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s CEO, who was also a member of the Disney board. Jack was stunned, but very polite. I wished Jack luck, and I hung up feeling relieved.

Boardroom Politics Are Everywhere

Disney is a large, successful company with an immaculate reputation. They are not typically associated with ridiculous boardroom politics. However, this book taught me that even at a company like Disney, there is drama behind closed doors.

Walt Disney’s nephew Roy Disney - not to be confused with Walt’s brother Roy who co-founded the company - was a board member of the Walt Disney company during a meaningful stretch of Iger’s involvement with the company. Roy struggled with alcoholism and a never-ending worry that Iger would ruin his uncle’s legacy. This eventually led Roy to resign from Disney’s Board of Directors:

“Our next board meeting was scheduled in New York on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. On Sunday afternoon, Willow and I were on our way to a museum and had plans for a dinner date that evening, when Michael’s assistant summoned me to an emergency meeting at Michael’s apartment in the Pierre Hotel on East Sixty-first Street. When I arrived, Michael was holding a letter from Roy and Stanley that had been slipped under his door. He handed it to me and I began to read. Roy stated in the letter that he and Stanley were resigning from the board. He then went on a blistering, three-page critique of Michael’s stewardship of the company. The first ten years had been a success, he acknowledged, but the latter years had been defined by seven distinct failures, which Roy laid out point by point: 1) a failure to bring ABC Prime Time back from its ratings abyss; 2) the “consistent micro-management of everyone around you with the resulting loss of morale throughout this company”; 3) a lack of adequate investment in theme parks—building “on the cheap”—that has depressed park attendance; 4) “the perception by all of our stakeholders…that the company is rapacious, soulless, and always looking for the ‘quick buck’ rather than long-term value, which is leading to a loss of public trust”; 5) a creative brain drain from the company due to mismanagement and low morale; 6) a failure to build good relationships with Disney’s partners, particularly Pixar; and 7) “your consistent refusal to establish a clear succession plan.”

**Note: **the ‘Stanley’ mentioned in this passage is Stanley Gold, who was the President and CEO of Shamrock Holdings, Roy’s private investment company.

As mentioned, Roy also had a drinking problem:

“He also had a drinking problem. We never discussed it at Disney while he was alive, but years later one of his kids spoke openly with me about the problems his parents had with alcohol. Roy and his wife, Patti, could get angry after a few drinks, often resulting in vicious late-night emails (I was on the receiving end of several), focused on mistakes he believed we were making as stewards of the Disney legacy.”

Like Many Successful People, Iger’s Relationship With His Father Was Strained

The last takeaway from the book that I’ll mention in this article is Iger’s relationship with his father. I will let Iger describe it himself:

“I was proud of his strong character and his politics. He had a fierce sense of what was right and fair, and he was always on the side of the underdog. But he also had trouble regulating his moods and would often say things that got him into trouble. I later learned that he’d been diagnosed with manic depression, and that he’d tried several therapies, including electroshock therapy, to treat his illness. As the older child, I bore the brunt of his emotional unpredictability. I never felt threatened by his moods, but I was acutely aware of his dark side and felt sad for him. We never knew which Dad was coming home at night, and I can distinctly recall sitting in my room on the second floor of our house, knowing by the sound of the way he opened and shut the door and walked up the steps whether it was happy or sad Dad.”

Iger did seem to have some reconciliation with his father later on in life:

“Late in life, after I’d become CEO of Disney, I took my father to lunch in New York. We talked about his mental health and his perspective on his life. I told him how much I appreciated everything that he and my mom had done for us, the ethics they instilled, and the love they gave us. I told him that was enough, more than enough, and wished that my gratitude might liberate him in some small way from disappointment. I do know that so many of the traits that served me well in my career started with him. I hope that he understood that, too.”

I have always found it very interesting that so many successful individuals had troubled relationships with their parents. Iger was no exception.

Final Thoughts

Bob Iger’s book The Ride of a Lifetime was an excellent read and I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in Disney, business, and especially mergers and acquisitions.

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Written on March 20, 2020