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Why More CEOs Should Follow Disney CEO Bob Iger’s Lead

Daily Ticker

The world has given corporate chiefs plenty of excuses to stay cautious and focus inward over the past several years – and most CEOs have used these excuses as permission to do just that.

Most corporate leaders have only held their jobs in times of threat and turmoil, from credit meltdown to severe global recession to sovereign-debt crises and radical technological change.

As a result, despite stock prices and profit margins at record highs, CEOs as a group have become conditioned to play defense. They have hoarded cash, using it mostly to buy back shares or increase dividends, while generally shunning bold investments or expansionary deal making.

Related: Today's CEOs Are Too Timid for the Times

Bob Iger also faced an onslaught of worldwide economic tumult and wrenching technological threats to his business since taking over as CEO of Walt Disney Co. (DIS) in late 2005.

Yet instead of treading gingerly, Iger has aggressively spent to expand Disney parks, launched a cruise line and spent heavily and opportunistically to purchase three of the most distinctive entertainment franchises ever created: Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm’s Star Wars.

Meantime, Iger (who sits on Apple Inc.’s (AAPL) board) has been a media industry leader in adapting to new digital-distribution approaches for Disney content, while pragmatically managing the secular decline in its ABC broadcasting business.

There is a good deal of irony in Iger’s expansionary tenure at Disney. When he succeeded Michael Eisner, the polarizing Hollywood character, he was considered a safe “Mr. Inside” who was a competent operator and an unobjectionable personality.

Yet Iger quickly refocused the company on its core “franchise” brands, those identifiably, quintessentially Disney-ish properties that resonate with customers and can be leveraged across multiple product platforms. And when one-of-a-kind intellectual properties became available, Iger had the resolve and risk appetite to buy them, rather than agonizing over whether they would have pleased Uncle Walt.

He bought Pixar for $7.4 billion in 2006, gaining unmatched creative resources as well as the close counsel of Pixar founder Steve Jobs (whose estate is Disney’s single largest shareholder). He followed it in 2009 with the $4 billion Marvel deal. By last year, Iger had clearly made Disney the preferred home for Star Wars, once creator George Lucas was ready to cash out. (Lucas agreed to sell his Lucasfilm empire to Disney for $4 billion last November).

With Pixar and Marvel, critics were quick to call the acquisitions expensive and risky, with unclear financial payoffs that would require many future hit movies. Yet Pixar and Marvel have paid off by most any measure, most recently with last weekend’s monster opening for Marvel’s Iron Man 3.

Meantime, with ESPN’s cable-fee machine humming along, Iger gave the network a free hand to invade the rest of the TV dial with new channels and spend aggressively for sports-programming rights. He led a controversial but ultimately successful renovation and expansion of the once-disappointing California Adventure theme park, launched cruise lines to further capture family loyalties and is overseeing the development of the five-year, 1,000-acre, $4 billion Shanghai Disneyland.

Under Iger, Disney’s per-share dividend has nearly quadrupled and the company has bought back some $3 billion a year or more in stock in recent years. Disney's profitable core media and theme-park operations earn enough cash to allow Iger to invest for the future and share cash with investors.

And none of this has made Iger immune from criticism or stumbles. There was a botched appointment of studio chief, the expensive John Carter movie debacle, complaints at times about the subpar profitability of the parks, some lousy network-TV programming and dry spells in Disney Channel show development. Yet none of it has deterred Iger from strengthening the brands and investing in new ones when opportunities arise. The market approves: Since Iger took over, Disney shares are up 180%, versus about 40% for the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index.

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