Power Players

From summer janitor to CEO of Disney: What fueled Bob Iger's rise to the top

CEO of The Walt Disney Company Robert Iger is seen September 23, 2019 in New York City.
Raymond Hall | GC Images | Getty Images

Disney announced Tuesday that Bob Iger will step down as CEO and become executive chairman through 2021, effective immediately.

Iger has been at the helm for 15 years and has been instrumental in turning Disney into a media powerhouse with several key acquisitions, including recently launching its streaming service Disney+.

Last year, he earned nearly $66 million — about 1,000 times more than his typical employee earns— which sparked some controversy about ballooning executive pay. What's more, Forbes estimates his net worth at around $690 million.

But Iger, 68, wasn't always part of the 1%; he had to start at the bottom just like most people, according to his new book, "The Ride of a Lifetime."

Iger writes that he grew up in a small, mostly working-class town on Long Island, New York called Oceanside. His mother was a stay-at-home mom, while his dad worked in advertising. Iger says he watched his dad bounce from job to job due to his troubles "regulating his moods." He was later diagnosed with manic depression.

"As I grew older, I became more aware of my father's disappointment in himself. He'd led a life that was unsatisfying to him and was a failure in his own eyes. It's part of why he pushed us to work so hard and be productive so that we might be successful in a way that he never was," Iger writes.

As a child, Iger remembers his father passing his bedroom at night to make sure, he was "spending time productively," as Iger says his father put it — that meant reading or doing homework or engaging in something that would "better" them in helping to reach their goals.

And because of both his father's encouragement and employment troubles, Iger started working many odd jobs at the age of 13 to jump-start his career.

"I started working in eighth grade, shoveling snow and babysitting and working as a stock boy in a hardware store," Iger says.

Then at 15, he says he got a job as the summer janitor in his school district. The position involved cleaning all the heaters and desks in every classroom. He says he had to make sure all the desks were gum-free before the school year started.

"Cleaning gum from the bottoms of a thousand desks can build character or at least tolerance for monotony, or something," he writes.

(In fact, he's not the only CEO to scrape gum: CEO and co-founder of private investment firm RSE Ventures Matt Higgins' first job was scraping gum off the bottoms of chairs at McDonald's, and he says it taught him about doing your best at everything.)

Later, while Iger attended Ithaca College in upstate New York, he spent nearly every weekend night his freshman and sophomore year making pizza at the local Pizza Hut.

During that time, Iger says, something clicked and he was determined to work harder than ever before, and learn as much as possible, so that he didn't have the same sense of regrets that his father had around his career.

"I didn't have a clear idea of what success meant, no specific vision of being wealthy or powerful, but I was determined not to live a life of disappointment," he writes.

From that moment on, Iger told himself that whatever shape his life took, he was never going to toil in frustration or lack of fulfillment.

In 1974, at the age of 23, Iger started his career at ABC Television as a studio supervisor after being a weatherman and a feature news reporter at a tiny cable TV station in Ithaca.

Over the course of the next 31 years, he would hold more than 20 different positions at ABC before being named the CEO of The Walt Disney Corporation in 2005.

"I've been the lowliest crew member working on a daytime soap opera and run a network that produced some of the most innovative television (and one of the infamous flops) of all time. I've twice been on the side of the company being taken over, and I've acquired and assimilated several others, among them Pixar, Marvel, Lucas-film, and, most recently, 21st Century Fox," he says.

And through it all, he credits his father the most, for encouraging him to work hard and stay productive in achieving his goals.

"I do know that so many of the traits that served me well in my career started with him. I hope that he understood, that, too."

This story has been updated with the news that Iger is stepping down.

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