by 02.06.2023

Ike Perlmutter trusted Bob Iger would protect the Marvel brand when he sold the company to Disney in 2009. Only six years later Iger took away Ike’s control of Marvel and by 2020 was using Marvel for his personal ‘Inclusion Key’ agenda, destroying billions in value at Disney and at least a $1 billion in personal wealth for Ike Perlmutter.



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A key question hanging over Disney as it battles a challenge from activist investor Nelson Peltz concerns how many of its shares are held by one of the company’s own employees: Marvel chair Isaac Perlmutter.

Perlmutter, the main backer of Peltz’s push to gain a seat on the Disney board, became the company’s second-largest individual shareholder in 2009 when he sold Marvel to Disney in a cash and stock deal worth $4.2bn. At the time only Steve Jobs held more shares, which he acquired after selling Pixar to Disney.

It is unclear how much stock the reclusive Perlmutter, who technically reports to chief executive Bob Iger, still holds. Assuming Perlmutter has not added or sold Disney shares since the Marvel deal closed, his stake would be worth $2.4bn, about 1 per cent of the company, according to FT calculations. Only investors with 5 per cent stakes or more have to disclose their holdings.

The size of Perlmutter’s stake matters because a large holding could tip the scale in favour of Peltz’s Trian Partners if the proxy battle is as close as some of the firm’s past fights.

Peltz, who acquired a $900mn stake in Disney last year, is known for his activist campaigns against big consumer products groups, including Procter & Gamble in 2017. In that proxy fight, both sides spent more than $100mn to woo shareholders, with Peltz winning by a paper-thin margin of 0.002 per cent.

Isaac Perlmutter, left, with Donald Trump in 2016. Perlmutter became Disney’s second-largest individual shareholder when it bought Marvel in 2009 © Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Other significant individual shareholders at Disney include Jobs’s widow, Laurene Powell Jobs, and Lucasfilm’s George Lucas. Disney hopes they will vote against Peltz’s move to gain a board seat.

Having an employee support an activist challenge to a large corporation is “definitely a unique situation”, said Drew Chapman, chair of the shareholder activism department at Cole Schotz, a law firm. “It appears that Peltz started looking at Disney because of his relationship with Perlmutter.”

He added that big individual shareholders help each side in a proxy contest to build support. “Disney, more so than other companies, has a large retail investor base which has its own challenges to building support. Having prominent large shareholders starts to help build the numbers.”

Peltz’s activist campaign has become a distraction for Iger, who returned to Disney as chief executive in November with a mandate to revive the company and its sagging share price. Iger is expected to discuss restructuring and cost-cutting plans when the company reports results on February 8, Wall Street analysts say.

Iger had a tense relationship with Perlmutter during his first stint as chief executive, so much so that Iger often delegated communications with Perlmutter to Bob Chapek, according to former employees. Chapek served as chief executive for 33 months before Iger returned.

Perlmutter is said to have been outraged when Iger reorganised Marvel in 2015 to allow film producer Kevin Feige to report to the head of the Disney studio, not Perlmutter — a move analysts say has proved to be wise. Since then, Feige has been named Marvel president and overseen the release of some of the highest-grossing movies of all time, including Avengers: Endgame and Black Panther.

Peltz and Perlmutter began seeking changes at Disney months before Iger’s return as chief executive. According to documents that Disney filed with the US Securities and Exchange Commission, Perlmutter called Disney board member Safra Catz and general counsel Horacio Gutierrez last July to advocate for the activist’s board seat. He met Chapek in Palm Beach, Florida, not long before his dismissal as chief executive to lobby on behalf of Peltz.

Perlmutter and Peltz, both octogenarian billionaires, are friends and live in Palm Beach. Their foundations have jointly donated to the local Salvation Army, and both were Trump donors, though Peltz said he regretted his donation after the January 6 2021 riot in Washington.

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