Longtime Disney chief executive officer Bob Iger announced his abrupt decision to step down Tuesday, in a move that caught the company's employees and rival media bigwigs off guard. Effective immediately, Iger, who served in his previous role for 15 years, will become executive chairman through 2021. Bob Chapek, who most recently served as chairman of Disney parks, experiences, and products, will take over as CEO, The New York Times reports.
Iger, who was slated to retire at the end of 2021, said he decided now was the right time so that he could focus on Disney's creative strategy for the remainder of his tenure. The sixth chief executive in the company's nearly 100-year history, he has been credited with transforming Disney into a media powerhouse through a series of astute acquisitions and leading the company to record financial results.
In November, Iger launched Disney Plus, making the entertainment giant a popular streaming service provider rivaling Netflix. Offering flagship content from Star Wars, Marvel, and Pixar, as well as Disney animations, the service reported 26.5 million paying subscribers in the first quarter of 2020 after its launch late last year.
Most recently, Iger oversaw Disney's $71 billion acquisition of Fox's entertainment business, which added even more content to its streaming library. Today, his most cogent business move remains his acquisition of Pixar Animation Studios -- maker of popular films such as Toy Story and Finding Nemo -- for $7.4 billion shortly into his tenure.
While Iger's exit may have come as a shock to Wall Street and Hollywood, the former CEO indicated in an interview with CNBC that his succession plans were "actually a few years" in the making and that Chapek had been earmarked "awhile ago as a likely candidate" to succeed him.
"With everything else falling into place, the time seemed right," Iger said in a call with investors shortly after the announcement, referring to major moves like the Fox merger and launch of Disney Plus.
While Chapek has limited creative experience -- given his background in brand management for H.J. Heinz and J. Walter Thompson Worldwide -- Iger asserted that he's the best person for the job, adding that he will be available to help his successor transition into his new role.
"I am incredibly honored and humbled to assume the role of CEO of what I truly believe is the greatest company in the world," Chapek said in a statement. "Bob Iger has built Disney into the most admired and successful media and entertainment company, and I have been lucky to enjoy a front-row seat as a member of his leadership team."