Pepper assumes leadership of Disney board

John Pepper, Yale’s former Vice President for Finance and Administration, was elected non-executive chairman of The Walt Disney Company on Wednesday.


Pepper will lead the company’s board of directors in making crucial decisions about Disney’s management when he assumes the position in January.


Pepper, who headed Procter & Gamble before accepting a top post at Yale in 2004, spent two years cutting the University’s budget deficit and overhauling its diversity and labor-relations policies.


Pepper left Yale at the end of last year and joined Disney’s board in January.


“Disney is a very exciting company, and it has enormous contact with people’s lives,” he said. “It is a great force for good in the country, and I’m very proud to have been asked to do this.”


As chairman, Pepper will greatly influence the composition of Disney’s leadership. While he will not have direct control over executive decisions, he said, he will share his ideas about brand-building and emerging markets with CEO Robert Iger, with whom he has a strong relationship.


“Since joining the Disney board, John has quickly immersed himself in our business and shared his broad and deep expertise in corporate management, global brand building and leadership development,” Iger said in a press release. “In John’s leadership of the board, Disney’s shareholders will benefit from his notable record of success in leading and growing one of the world’s largest consumer-products companies.”


Pepper’s appointment follows a period of conflict between Disney’s management and its shareholders. Shareholders had criticized former CEO Michael Eisner for the company’s falling stock price and his influence in the board’s choice of Iger — who took over last year — to succeed him. In addition, the company recently concluded 10 years of litigation over executive pay.


Pepper is an attractive choice because he was not involved in the company’s earlier clashes, said Roberta Romano, a Yale Law School professor who studies corporate governance.


“He wasn’t on the board at the time of the litigation and the events that shareholders were dissatisfied with,” Romano said. “He brings a new face to the board.”


She also said Pepper brings more corporate experience to the table than current chairman George Mitchell, who is a former U.S. Senate majority leader. Mitchell was slated to retire in June but postponed his departure to facilitate the transition. He gained the position after a 2004 shareholder revolt in which Eisner was stripped of his chairmanship but held on to his executive role.


Ernst Huff, Yale’s associate vice president for student financial and administrative services, said Pepper is a consensus-builder who should be able to help Disney get past the conflict associated with the Eisner years.


“He’s highly regarded in the corporate world,” Huff said. “He likes to get involved with people, and I think he respects and seeks out their opinions.”


Pepper said he expects the position to bring new challenges, though he will employ the same approach to “developing and engaging a team” that he used at Yale. Disney’s performance has improved over the last two years, and it recently made a $7.4 billion acquisition of Pixar Animation Studios.


Pepper said he has already discovered an appreciation for Pixar’s films, particularly “Finding Nemo.”


“It’s a great adventure story and a great human-relations story,” he said. “You kind of forget they’re fish.”


Pepper will continue to serve as the CEO of Cincinnati’s National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which aims to educate citizens on current and historical issues related to liberty and discrimination. He assumed the position after leaving Yale to help reverse a decline in attendance and to oversee an improvement in the building’s infrastructure.

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