Meet the Former CFO Who Thinks He Can Fix Disney

Nearly a decade after leaving Disney, Rasulo is back.
Nearly a decade after leaving Disney, Rasulo is back.

Summary

Jay Rasulo wants to return from the sidelines. Disney says his perspective is stale.

When Disney’s efforts to build a theme park in China became snarled in the late 2000s, Chief Executive Bob Iger sent his parks chief to Shanghai to figure out why government officials weren’t returning calls.

Jay Rasulo recalls meeting with a high-ranking Communist Party official on the trip who urged him not to give up. “Jay, keep knocking at the gate," the official said. “Someday it will open."

Nearly a decade after leaving Disney, Rasulo is back, once again knocking at the gates of power, this time as a nominee to join Disney’s board as part of activist investor Nelson Peltz’s proxy campaign against the company.

For more than a year, Peltz and his hedge fund, Trian Fund Management, have publicly criticized Disney’s current board and Iger’s management. Trian controls around 33 million Disney shares and is urging shareholders to vote Peltz and Rasulo onto the board at the company’s April 3 annual meeting.

The outcome of the vote could reshape how one of America’s most iconic entertainment companies is governed for years to come. The inclusion of Rasulo is a sign that Peltz thinks some shareholders will be persuaded to vote for a slate that includes an executive who grew intimately familiar with Disney over the course of his nearly 30-year tenure.

“When people call me about the company and what’s going on, I say, ‘Don’t ask me! It’s breaking my heart!’" Rasulo said in an interview. “When Nelson called me, I decided I couldn’t sit on the sidelines."

Rasulo, once considered a potential successor to Iger, said he knows how to work with the veteran Disney CEO and that shareholders deserve “objective, passionate, owner-focused representatives" to hold the company’s management accountable. Peltz has said he wants Disney to target higher profit margins in the streaming business and have the board review the movie studio’s strategy.

Disney in recent weeks has argued that Peltz lacks the experience to help the company and told shareholders not to vote for him or Rasulo. A Disney spokesman said Rasulo left more than eight years ago and “in our view, his analog perspective is not relevant to the challenges of today’s digital media landscape."

The company says the activist’s campaign is colored by personal animus. More than 25 million Disney shares in Peltz’s war chest—nearly 80% of the total—come from his friend and former Marvel Entertainment chairman Isaac “Ike" Perlmutter. Iger fired Perlmutter in March 2023 after the two men had quarreled for years over movie budgets and creative decisions.

‘Activator and a motivator’

Rasulo, born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and raised in Staten Island, cut his teeth as a finance executive in the hospitality industry. After earning an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago in 1984, he joined Marriott, helping launch new hotel lines.He soon joined a wave of Marriott executives recruited by Disney to help manage the eruption of new business ideas prompted by the arrival of new CEO Michael Eisner.

Many of these executives ended up on Eisner’s Strategic Planning team, a division that advised the various Disney business units on how to best deploy capital and launch new products. Rasulo began working closely with the theme-park division, helping with pricing strategy and developing hotels at Disney’s resorts.Rasulo later launched Club Disney, a short-lived chain of children’s play centers. He spent several years living in Paris managing Euro Disney, taking an immersive language course that helped him speak French fluently.

He returned to Burbank, Calif., to lead the Parks and Resorts division in the early 2000s and was credited with turning around Disneyland Resort’s finances and planning a $1.1 billion remodeling of its California Adventure theme park.

Bill Ernest, who worked under Rasulo in the early 2000s running Disney’s Asian theme parks, said he built up confidence in his subordinates.“He asked a lot of probing questions to help you think about things," Ernest said.

Experiences like Rasulo’s solo trip to China helped teach him the value of persistence, which he describes as one of his core business principles. Despite delays, Disney opened Shanghai Disney Resort in 2016, the first-ever project of its scale built by a Western entertainment company in mainland China.

“Jay was always a maniac about excellence," said Regynald Washington, former vice president for food and beverage at Disney’s resorts, who described Rasulo as an “activator and a motivator."He said Rasulo was passionate about culture as well as business, recalling his taste for fine Italian and French food, Bordeaux wine and the music of B.B. King and Steely Dan. Rasulo has served on the board of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for nearly two decades.

He had critics inside Disney as well. Several former executives who worked alongside him said Rasulo could be harsh toward executives whose units were underperforming, and he had a bedside manner that sometimes came across as indelicate inside a company where a polite decorum usually prevails.

“I’m a very direct guy. Many people at Disney are not direct," Rasulo said. “There are people who want to do their thing, and they don’t like it when someone calls them on it in a studio budget meeting, for example."

Life after Disney

In 2010, Iger had Rasulo trade the parks chief job for Tom Staggs’ chief financial officer role, setting off a horse race to determine which of the two men would likely succeed the CEO. When Staggs was elevated to the position of chief operating officer—effectively Iger’s second-in-command—in 2015, the CEO asked Rasulo to stay on as finance chief.

Rasulo declined, resigning a few months later. “Was I disappointed? Of course I was. But that’s not a personal grudge," Rasulo said. He added that he isn’t interested in a management role.

Inside the company, however, some senior executives have interpreted Rasulo’s partnership with Peltz and public comments he has made about Disney’s recent challenges as evidence that he is motivated by ill will toward Iger.

Since leaving Disney, Rasulo has served on boards of media executive Haim Saban’s private investment company and the radio and podcast company iHeartMedia. He was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a form of blood cancer, in 2019. The cancer is now in remission, he said.

Rasulo became friendly with Perlmutter after meeting him in 2010 and stayed in touch with him after leaving Disney. In January 2023, Rasulo was introduced to Peltz at a meeting at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Perlmutter, who had advocated for Rasulo to succeed Iger as CEO, urged Peltz to consider him as a board nominee.

The Disney spokesman said the company questions Rasulo’s ability to work constructively with its management team given his decision to leave the company in 2015 and his “close association" with Perlmutter.

In recent months, Disney has made a series of announcements that seem designed to counter Peltz’s narrative of a company in disarray, including a new sports-streaming partnership, forays into sports-betting and videogames and a surprise sequel to the animated feature “Moana."Its share price is up about 9% since its Feb. 7 earnings report, to $107.74, but Peltz says he isn’t impressed. Disney’s share price also rose a year ago after a flurry of strategic initiatives were announced during earnings, prompting Peltz to end an earlier proxy campaign.

“We dropped out after that earnings announcement because we trusted Disney would execute," Peltz said in a statement. “We are not doing that again."

Write to Robbie Whelan at robbie.whelan@wsj.com

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