Disney CEO Bob Iger Recalls His Touching Friendship with Steve Jobs

Bob Iger and Steve Jobs Credit: Vanity Fair / Bloomberg
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Following news earlier this week that Disney Chairman and CEO Bob Iger resigned from Apple’s board of directors, the long-time Disney CEO and close personal friend of Apple’s co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs reminisces in a new book over the relationship he enjoyed with the legendary executive and the ways in which the two companies worked together closely over the course of many years.

In his upcoming memoir, The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company, Iger fondly remembers Steve Jobs and talks about how the two became incredibly close friends as a result of Disney’s acquisition of Jobs’ other pet company, Pixar.

An excerpt of the new book shared by Vanity Fair ahead of its release shows a side of Steve Jobs that many other authors who have tackled the mercurial founder’s biography haven’t been able to capture, which probably isn’t surprising since it’s one of the few book that’s been written by somebody who was one of Steve Jobs’ closest and most intimate friends.

A Close Confidante

According to the book, Iger was one of the first people to know about Jobs’ deteriorating medical condition, revealed to him back in 2006, years before anybody else had even guessed that the Apple CEO was battling pancreatic cancer.

Thirty minutes before announcing the deal that would see Disney acquire Pixar, resulting in Jobs becoming the second-largest shareholder in the history of the media conglomerate, next to only the founder Walt Disney himself, Jobs felt that he had an obligation to be candid with Iger about his medical situation and offer him an opening to back out of the deal.

I looked at my watch. It was 12:15. We walked for a while and then sat on a bench in the middle of Pixar’s beautiful, manicured grounds. Steve put his arm behind me, which was a nice, unexpected gesture. He said, “I’m going to tell you something that only Laurene” — his wife — “and my doctors know.” He asked me for complete confidentiality, and then he told me that his cancer had returned.

Iger reports struggling to process the news, not only on a personal level, but also on a professional one. Since Jobs insisted on complete confidentiality, any disclosure obligations could complicate the deal, leaving Iger with no choice but to back away from it, without being able to tell his board of directors why.

He told me the cancer was now in his liver and he talked about the odds of beating it. He was going to do whatever it took to be at his son Reed’s high school graduation, he said. When he told me that was four years away, I felt devastated. It was impossible to be having these two conversations — about Steve facing his impending death and about the deal we were supposed to be closing in minutes — at the same time.

In the end, Iger rejected Jobs’ offer to let him back out, moving forward with the deal that he already spent months pleading with Disney’s board of directors to accept.

I had no idea if I was doing the right thing, but I’d quickly calculated that Steve was not material to the deal itself, although he certainly was material to me.

Iger describes sharing the news with his wife, Willow, who had known Jobs for even longer than he had — going back to 1982 — adding that the news cast a sorrowful pallor over what should have been an occasion to celebrate.

Bonded over ‘iTV’

Iger recalls how he and Steve had originally begun on somewhat icy terms. Prior to Iger’s ascension to the helm of Disney, Jobs had developed an increasingly fractured relationship with Iger’s predecessor, Michael Eisner, over the licensing of Pixar’s content. It had gotten so bad, in fact, that Jobs had very publicly vowed back in 2004 that he would “never deal with Disney again.”

With Pixar having begun to eclipse the fractured Disney Animation studio, Iger knew that he had to try to win back the good graces of Jobs. After Iger was publicly announced as the new CEO, he reached out to Jobs, who agreed to talk with him, although his “animosity toward Disney was deep-rooted.”

Rather than broaching the Pixar partnership directly, Iger tried a more personal approach, talking about how he was a huge music lover and had all of his music stored on his iPod. Iger then went on to explain how he had been thinking about the future of television, and that “it was only a matter of time before we would be accessing TV shows and movies on our computers” — this was months before the first video-capable iPod was introduced, and the iPhone and Apple TV were still two more years away. Iger told Jobs that he envisioned an “iTV” kind of platform that would be like “iTunes for television.”

Jobs was silent for a while, just listening to Iger, and then finally revealed that he was working on something that he wanted to share with Iger. He flew down to Burbank a few weeks later to show Iger the first video-capable iPod.

He slowly withdrew a device from his pocket. “This is our new video iPod,” he said. It had a screen the size of a couple of postage stamps, but he was talking about it like it was an IMAX theater. “This is going to allow people to watch video on our iPods, not just listen to music,” he said. “If we bring this product to market, will you put your television shows on it?” I said yes right away.

Jobs asked Iger if he would be willing to make Disney television shows available on the iTunes Store for the video iPod, and Iger agreed wholeheartedly without missing a beat. The quick decision pleasantly surprised Jobs, who had complained about the frequent intransigence that he experienced with Disney, with “every agreement needing to be vetted and analyzed to within an inch of its life.” Iger explained to Jobs that he didn’t work that way either, and the beginning of a friendship between the two leaders was born.

Five months later, Iger took the stage at Apple’s fall 2005 iPod event as the newly-minted CEO of Disney, to announce that five Disney shows, including Desperate Housewives and Lost, would be the first television content to be available for download on iTunes to watch on the new iPod.

The ease and the speed with which we got the deal done, combined with the fact that it showed an admiration for Apple and its products, blew Steve’s mind. He told me he’d never met anyone in the entertainment business who was willing to try something that might disrupt his own company’s business model.

The relationship between the two CEOs continued to grow after that, with Jobs opening up to a new Disney-Pixar deal, which eventually led to Iger coming up with the idea that Disney should simply buy Pixar outright, leading to Jobs becoming the most influential member of Disney’s board of directors.

Steve Jobs and Marvel

Iger also reveals that Steve Jobs played a significant role in Disney’s acquisition of Marvel. Iger notes that after Jobs joined Disney’s board, he he rarely made any big decisions without consulting with Jobs on a personal level. This included Disney’s 2009 acquisition of Marvel, in which Iger noted that Jobs had “never read a comic book in his life” and so needed to have the Marvel universe explained to him. Jobs reportedly looked at it for about 10 seconds, then pushed it aside and simply asked Iger, “Is this one important to you? Do you really want it? Is it another Pixar?”

Our connection was much more than a business relationship. We enjoyed each other’s company immensely, and we felt we could say anything to each other, that our friendship was strong enough that it was never threatened by candor.

Iger notes that he asked Jobs to reach out to Marvel’s CEO and controlling shareholder, Ike Perlmutter, to vouch for him, which Jobs gladly did. Perlmutter later told Iger that “the call from Steve made a big difference.” Jobs always told Iger that he would do things like this for Iger purely out of friendship, rather than as a member of Disney’s board, even going so far as to say that it was “insulting” for Iger to simply think of him as Disney’s largest shareholder. “I’m just a good friend,” Jobs would say.

Jobs’ Final Days

Iger says that there’s not a single success that Disney has had since Steve’s death where he doesn’t look back and think, “I wish Steve could be here for this.”

In fact, although the idea of Apple and Disney merging has been discussed by analysts and pundits many times over the years, there’s never been any concrete indication that it would happen beyond the close friendship enjoyed by the two CEOs. In his memoir, however, Iger says flat-out that he believes that an Apple-Disney merger of some kind would have happened if Steve had lived on as Apple CEO.

More than that, I believe that if Steve were still alive, we would have combined our companies, or at least discussed the possibility very seriously.

In the summer of 2011, only a few short weeks before Jobs finally succumbed to cancer, Steve and Laurene visited Bob Iger and his wife Willow in L.A. to have dinner. Iger describes Jobs as extremely sick, in the late stages of cancer, terribly thin and in obvious pain, but wanting to spend an evening with Iger and his wife despite that in order to toast all that they had accomplished together. Steve raised a glass of wine before dinner, saying, “Look what we did. We saved two companies.”

Iger describes this as “Steve at his warmest and most sincere.” A few weeks later, on October 5, 2011, Steve Jobs died, and Iger for the first time shared the memory of the walk on Pixar’s campus years earlier when Jobs had shared the “intimate, terrible knowledge” of his condition. Jobs’ wife, Laurene, also shared her side of the story from that day, noting that when she asked her husband if they could trust Iger, Steve responded with, “I love that guy.” As Iger adds, it was a feeling that was mutual.

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