Disney Faces Post-Steve Jobs Future

Former Apple CEO is largest shareholder in media empire

Apple isn’t the only company that has to face some questions about its future in the wake of Steve Jobs' resignation as CEO. The grave health problems that led Jobs to step down also affect the Walt Disney Co. and, by extension, some of the biggest names in media—ranging from ABC and ESPN to Pixar.

In 2006, a decade after Jobs bought Pixar from Lucasfilm, he off-loaded the company, which had become an animation powerhouse, to Disney. The deal, an all-stock transaction worth $7.4 billion, made Jobs the single largest Disney shareholder—he acquired 7.4 percent of the company—and got him a seat on the media giant's board. 

Jobs was re-elected to the board in March, even though he's been, by Disney's own standards, something of an absentee director. Last year, Jobs failed to attend at least 75 percent of Disney’s board meetings, the minimum set for the company's directors. That was the third time in four years that he hadn't met that standard. “I wouldn’t say he’s been a passive board member at Disney, but it's come pretty close to that,” said Tuna Amobi, a media analyst with Standard & Poor’s. “People understand that his health issues have somewhat limited his ability to contribute fully as a board member . . . [and] are somewhat forgiving of that—he takes no compensation for his board role."

That's not to say, though, that Jobs has been entirely absent from Disney. In fact, when it comes to subjects on which he's expert, he's taken an active role in strategy, and the company has been better for it. Last year, when Disney relaunched its retail outlets, the mark of Jobs was obvious in the interactive displays and center stage theaters that are key to the new stores. It was Jobs who made the relaunch more of a reinvention of the stores than a mere redesign—he even, according to The New York Times, "provided access to proprietary information about the development and operation of Apple’s highly successful stores."

It's this kind of thing that Disney might have trouble making up for when Jobs does leave the board.

“It’s a basic governance challenge: How do you create a succession plan for someone who can’t really be replaced?" said Ric Marshall, chief analyst with GovernanceMetrics International, an independent provider of corporate governance ratings and research. "You have to replace them as best you can and be prepared for the company to experience change. Disney itself is a great example of that. It’s like losing Walt Disney all over again."

The future of Jobs' substantial stake in Disney is a private matter. Until the inevitable happens, there's no way of knowing who his will designates as the recipient of the stock, or whether multiple people will get a piece of it, thus diluting the power of the stake. 

The most obvious possible beneficiaries of Jobs’ estate are his wife, Laurene Powell Jobs, and their three children—Reed, Erin, and Eve. There is an additional child in the mix: Jobs’ daughter, Lisa, born when Jobs was 23 to a woman he never married. Another family member Jobs may want included in his legacy: his biological sister, a former Paris Review editor and award-winning novelist, Mona Simpson. As an adult, Jobs—who was adopted as a baby—met and formed a close relationship with Simpson, the daughter his biological parents kept after giving him up. Of Simpson, Jobs told The New York Times Magazine, “We’re family. She’s one of my best friends in the world.”