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Disney's 'million-dollar question' post-proxy fight: Who will succeed Bob Iger?

Disney (DIS) and its CEO Bob Iger may be riding high following a proxy battle win against activist investor Nelson Peltz last week. But its board now faces an even higher-stakes challenge: figuring out who will be the entertainment giant's next leader.

"That is the million-dollar question," Third Bridge analyst Jamie Lumley told Yahoo Finance. "Wall Street wants to have this sorted out as soon as possible [but] they don't want a repeat of the Bob Chapek transition."

Chapek, who previously headed Disney's parks division, was hand-selected by Iger as CEO in 2020. But he was ousted from the position in November 2022 after less than three years on the job that were marred by political battles, A-list talent problems, and controversial reorganizations.

A successor could be named as soon as this year or closer to the end of Iger's contract, which expires in December 2026.

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"I would think by 2025 we'd see something — either in terms of an expected successor, even if not explicitly named," Matthew Dolgin, senior equity analyst at Morningstar, told Yahoo Finance. "[If not], the market would start getting a bit antsy."

Who is in the running?

Disney's succession planning committee, which includes chairman Mark Parker along with fellow board members Calvin McDonald, Mary Barra, and James Gorman, previously told shareholders it's "engaged in and executing on a best-in-class, intensive, diligent and thorough succession planning process."

In a letter sent to shareholders on March 22, the committee confirmed it met seven times in 2023 and will continue to meet regularly until the succession process is completed. Disney has said the committee is currently reviewing internal candidates as well as potential external candidates.

Rumors have swirled that internal names like Dana Walden and Alan Bergman, co-chairmen of Disney Entertainment; Josh D'Amaro, head of Disney's parks and experiences division; and Jimmy Pitaro, chairman of ESPN, could be next in line.

Walden joined Disney when the company acquired 21st Century Fox in 2019. She currently oversees Disney’s television studios, along with the ABC network, ABC News, Freeform, FX, National Geographic, Hulu, and Hulu Originals. She also heads up Disney's children and young adult programming.

Bergman, meanwhile, leads Disney's film and studios division, which includes Disney Animation, Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, 20th Century Studios, and Searchlight Pictures. He joined the company in 1996 and has served in senior leadership roles at Disney since 2001.

Similar to Bergman, D'Amaro is another Disney veteran. He joined the company in 1998 in a position at the Disneyland Resort. He took over the parks and experiences division in 2020 and has since navigated choppy waters, including a high-profile feud with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and a pandemic that brought the parks business to a complete halt.

Finally, Pitaro previously led Disney’s consumer products and interactive media division before heading up ESPN in 2018. He is responsible for securing an 11-year media rights deal with the NFL and has also secured other key live programming rights in his tenure. He first joined Disney in 2010 and (fun fact) served as head of media at Yahoo prior to making the jump to the House of Mouse.

Other possibilities include former executives Kevin Mayer and Tom Staggs, who left the company in 2020 after Iger selected Chapek for the CEO position. Staggs had formerly been Disney's COO, CFO, and head of the parks division. Mayer handled strategy and development at the company, overseeing the launch of both Disney+ and ESPN+.

Both Mayer and Staggs, who currently run Blackstone-backed entertainment startup Candle Media, have since returned to serve as strategic advisers amid ESPN's streaming transition.

'A very broad job'

Wall Street analysts say it's unlikely Disney's future CEO will be an outsider. Mayer and Staggs could be considered Disney "insiders" given their prior stints at the company (and respective relationships with Iger.)

"It is certainly more likely than not that Disney will opt for one of these internal candidates," Lumley said. "Disney culture is something which we hear repeated very often as one of the biggest factors for a CEO to be successful — just someone who really knows how Disney works as an organization."

That someone will likely come from the company's entertainment and media division, analysts surmise. The company's main challenge is figuring out how to grow profits as more consumers cut the cable cord.

"The biggest issue facing this company, like all traditional media companies, is how do you navigate the evolution from traditional television business models to streaming," Dolgin said. "Nobody, including Bob Iger, has successfully navigated that. It's existential for many companies."

FILE PHOTO: The Walt Disney Company CEO Bob Iger attends the Nominees Luncheon for the 95th Oscars in Beverly Hills, California, U.S. February 13, 2023. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni/File Photo
FILE PHOTO: The Walt Disney Company CEO Bob Iger attends the Nominees Luncheon for the 95th Oscars in Beverly Hills, California, U.S. February 13, 2023. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni/File Photo (Reuters / Reuters)

While Disney’s immediate priorities are turning a profit in the streaming business and executing on $7.5 billion in annual cost cuts, the Disney of the future could look different as the streaming landscape becomes less fragmented.

"Investing in profitable growth will be the North Star for the next CEO," Lumley said, emphasizing that Iger's replacement will be tasked with executing on these initiatives. "Streaming at that point will no longer be the battle we've had over the last few years. It will be more about how to ensure streaming isn't a loss leader and expand margins as much as possible."

Still, MoffettNathanson analyst Michael Nathanson said the particular details on a candidate's resume might not be that critical given Disney's vast array of businesses.

"They're just looking for the best possible leader who can push this company forward," he said. "It's a very broad job. I don't think there's one type of person who fits the job. It's going to take some time for them to determine the right fit."

And if they don’t, there's another potential option: Iger could extend his contract once again.

"At some point, that wouldn't be handled well by the market," Dolgin said. "But it is a possibility."

Alexandra Canal is a Senior Reporter at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on X @allie_canal, LinkedIn, and email her at alexandra.canal@yahoofinance.com.

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