Why is Bob Iger’s return to Disney as CEO such a big deal?

When complaints about Chapek reached the board, it did something pretty shocking by calling back its former CEO.

Why is Bob Iger’s return to Disney as CEO such a big deal?
Bob Iger, CEO of Walt Disney Co., is interviewed by the media at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim on May 29, 2019. Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times. 

Bob Iger was Disney's CEO for 15 years, retiring in December 2021. He appointed Bob Chapek as his successor in February 2020. But while Chapek was at the top, Disney faced a lot of challenges, and his controversial moves definitely didn't help. For one, the company reported a US$1.47 billion loss earlier this month, and its shares tumbled 9% immediately after. Chapek responded with cost-cutting through a hiring freeze and layoffs. This was just one on top of many other decisions that rubbed people the wrong way (including not taking a stance on Florida's "Don't Say Gay" bill in solidarity with Disney's LGBTQ+ staff). Chapek's leadership faced backlash from senior execs, including CFO Christine McCarthy. Eventually, the complaints reached the board, and it did something pretty shocking by calling back its former CEO.

On Sunday, Disney announced it would immediately bring back Iger to take over as CEO. Disney will pay Iger about US$27 million yearly, and he'll be around until the end of 2024, at which point he will hopefully have picked a better successor. On Monday, Iger wasted no time fixing Chapek's mess. He promised to partner with top execs to design ​​a new structure "that puts more decision-making back in the hands of our creative teams" – something Chapek had ruffled feathers by taking away. The news shocked investors in a good way, as Wall Street is expecting Iger to turn the struggling streaming business around. Disney's shares rose over 6% after the announcement on Monday, adding around US$10 billion to its market value.

Key comments:

“Iger’s return is probably a net positive, as he’s generally highly thought of among investors, content creators and consumers,” said one of the company’s top-10 shareholders. “He was responsible for many of the strategic decisions and acquisitions over the past couple decades that made Disney into what it is today.”

“It is with an incredible sense of gratitude and humility –and, I must admit, a bit of amazement – that I write to you this evening with the news that I am returning to the Walt Disney Company as chief executive officer,” said Bob Iger in an email to Disney employees on Sunday.  

“Bob Iger is a smart, savvy executive, he’ll have to truly pick a successor in the next go around,” said Bank of America’s Jessica Reif Ehrlich. “He’ll need to groom someone.”