Robert Iger owns a license-plate frame printed with the question: "Is there life after Disney?"
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The chairman and chief executive of the world's largest media conglomerate, Walt Disney Co., doesn't keep the frame on his car anymore. "I decided it's not worth it," Mr. Iger said in March at a conference sponsored by the University of Southern California. "I'd get stopped every once in a while by people who asked what it means."
The same question transfixes people throughout Disney and the entertainment industry, who wonder how much longer Mr. Iger, 66 years old, will keep his grip on the company behind Snow White, "Star Wars" and "SportsCenter." Twelve years into his tenure as CEO, the question of who will succeed Mr. Iger is more uncertain than it has been for nearly a decade. He isn't about to let go.
The strongest internal candidates have left, and the most frequently mentioned external candidates are uninterested. Some people who know Mr. Iger believe he simply doesn't want to retire yet, despite stating repeatedly that he intends to. A contract extension signed in March runs through July 2, 2019. That is the fourth date he has announced for stepping down as CEO.
Disney's board of directors and investors seem happy to back Mr. Iger for as long as he wants to stay. Under his widely acclaimed leadership, the Burbank, Calif., company's share price has nearly quintupled, increasing the stock-market value of Disney to about $170 billion. Disney is the most successful entertainment company in modern history.
The longer Mr. Iger stays, though, the harder it gets to imagine the future of Disney without him -- or who could possibly replace him.
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Mr. Iger has led the company for so long and with such hands-on attention that he and Disney now seem inseparable to many employees and outside partners. That dynamic also occurred with founder Walt Disney and Mr. Iger's predecessor as CEO, Michael Eisner. Mr. Eisner left following strife among Disney shareholders and its board, a problem Mr. Iger isn't facing.
Mr. Iger's ever-extending leadership might be just what Disney needs to keep thriving where it is strong and solve problems looming on the horizon, such as declines in viewership at ESPN and the company's other television networks. If the problems worsen, though, Disney shareholders might turn less sanguine about succession questions.
On a conference call with analysts last Tuesday, Mr. Iger said that "more has been made about our succession than it really deserves." He and the board are trying to ensure "we have enough time to not only consider the right candidates but to make the right decision and to craft a handover of sorts of a transition that should be successful," added Mr. Iger.
Two years ago, the succession question seemed to be settled. After a five-year bake-off during which Mr. Iger's retirement as CEO was delayed from 2015 to 2016 and then to 2018, Disney promoted Tom Staggs, head of its parks and resorts division and former finance chief, to operating chief.
The move positioned Mr. Staggs, a 26-year Disney veteran, as the natural successor to Mr. Iger.
In March 2016, Mr. Iger told Mr. Staggs that they needed to talk.
Mr. Staggs's first year in the No. 2 job was bumpy. Because the chief operating officer had few solo responsibilities and no business units reporting directly to him, Disney employees were uncertain how much authority he carried.
Still, many people inside the company assumed those obstacles would be surmountable. Messrs. Iger and Staggs were longtime friends who had similar leadership styles and whose children attended the same school. But Mr. Iger had a very different message during their meeting in March 2016.
Disney's board of directors, led by Mr. Iger as chairman, had lost confidence in Mr. Staggs's ability to ascend to the top job, the CEO said, according to people familiar with the discussion.
Without citing any shortcomings that emerged during Mr. Staggs's year as operating chief, Mr. Iger said the board would expand its search process for a new chief executive. Mr. Staggs felt he had no choice but to resign.
When his exit was announced, Disney said the board would "broaden the scope of its succession-planning process to identify and evaluate a robust slate of candidates for consideration."
Throughout Hollywood and Disney, some executives, producers, agents and other business associates believed Mr. Iger had decided he wasn't ready to step down.
Building a boat
Those people pointed to issues ranging from professional, including his desire to conquer the challenges at ESPN from cord-cutting, to personal, such as the failure of a bid he chaired to build a National Football League stadium near Los Angeles that might have been an anchor of post-Disney life.
In private conversations, Mr. Iger has discussed possibly running for office, serving in a Democratic presidential administration or spending time on a sailboat he is building, say people who have worked at Disney and spoken with him. Those people say they weren't sure how seriously to take Mr. Iger.
A person close to Mr. Iger says he wanted to retire in 2018 but felt he had to stay longer after the plan for Mr. Staggs to succeed him failed. This person adds that if Mr. Iger's goal was simply to extend his tenure as CEO, he could have kept Mr. Staggs as operating chief past 2018.
Disney's board is now focused on hiring or promoting someone directly into the CEO job, rather than an evaluation or training period as operating chief, according to people close to the company. There have been no obvious signs of progress in the past year toward selecting such a person.
Orin C. Smith, Disney's independent lead director, said in March that the board would continue its "robust process of identifying a successor."
Speculation inside and outside Disney has centered on three widely respected outsiders: Steve Burke, chief executive of Comcast Corp.'s NBCUniversal, which includes cable and broadcast networks, film and TV studios and theme parks; Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook Inc.'s operating chief and a Disney director, and Peter Chernin, a producer and investor who was News Corp. president until 2009.
News Corp. later spun off its newspaper and book-publishing assets, including The Wall Street Journal, and changed its name to 21st Century Fox Inc.
Disney hasn't approached Mr. Burke, Ms. Sandberg or Mr. Chernin about the CEO job, according to people familiar with the matter. None of them is interested in taking it.
Some people at Disney believe the board should try to hire from the inside. Disney prides itself on a corporate culture that focuses obsessively on what it calls "franchises" -- or entertainment juggernauts that live on for many years as theme-park rides, toys, videogames, television shows and merchandise.
No one already at Disney has emerged as a strong potential successor to Mr. Iger, either. The company's theme-park chief for the past two years, Bob Chapek, is the only senior executive who has worked in multiple Disney divisions. He spent much of his career heading home video for Disney's movie studio before taking over the consumer-products business in 2011.
Mr. Chapek has no experience in Disney's television business, the biggest unit in terms of revenue and profit.
Finding a successor to Mr. Iger wasn't supposed to come down to the wire.
Mr. Staggs and Jay Rasulo emerged as leading CEO contenders as far back as 2010, when they swapped jobs, with Mr. Staggs taking over the theme-park division and Mr. Rasulo becoming chief financial officer.
The idea of Mr. Iger and Disney's board was that Messrs. Staggs and Rasulo would broaden their exposure and skill sets so that either one would become seen as qualified to rise to the CEO spot held by Mr. Iger.
Four months after being passed over in 2015 to be Mr. Iger's second-in-command, Mr. Rasulo resigned from Disney.
Mr. Iger, Disney's president since 2000, spent several years as the likely successor to Mr. Eisner before being promoted to the top job in 2005.
Mum until 2018
People close to the company say it appears that Disney's board isn't close to zeroing in on a successor to Mr. Iger and is unlikely to announce the company's new chief executive until 2018 at the earliest.
Meanwhile, Mr. Iger is as hands-on as he has ever been. Initially cautious about getting involved in the film business because his background was in TV, he now reads scripts regularly and discusses release plans.
He tasted the food at Shanghai Disneyland before it opened last year. Mr. Staggs was heavily involved in the new theme park but exited Disney a month before the opening.
Mr. Iger also is leading the charge to figure out a new digital future for profit machine ESPN, which has lost 12 million subscribers in the past five years as consumers become less interested in pricey pay-TV packages.
Solving the ESPN problem is a top priority for Mr. Iger, a perfectionist who wants to leave Disney in as flawless shape as possible, people close to him say.
TV is the biggest challenge for Disney, which otherwise has been succeeding on all fronts. Mr. Iger engineered the purchases of Pixar Animation Studios, Marvel Entertainment Inc. and Lucasfilm, which cost more than $15 billion combined. They are largely responsible for Disney's dominance of the movie business in the past few years and have helped generate growing profits for parks and consumer products.
Insiders and outsiders are split on whether Disney's future would be brighter with a CEO from Silicon Valley who could guide the company's digital transition, an expert in brand management or someone already in the creative bubble of Hollywood. Mr. Iger and the board have given themselves two more years to answer that question.
--Joe Flint contributed to this article.
(END) Dow Jones Newswires