It almost seems as if a career at The Walt Disney Co. was preordained for Jay Rasulo before he even entered the business world.
While making his way through college at Columbia University and graduate school at the University of Chicago, where he earned a master’s degree in economics and an MBA, he had one guiding principle for where he wanted to work.
“I only wanted to be in businesses where I understood as a consumer what good service was or what a good product was,” said Rasulo, 56, at the Bloomberg CFO Conference in New York City last month. “When you come out of a big business school you have offers to do a lot of different things, [including working in technical industries like] specialty chemicals. I didn’t understand specialty chemicals. I migrated to the hotel business because I knew what a great hotel stay was and what a bad one was.”
His job in the entertainment world is similarly informed. Rasulo — who joined Disney in 1986 and became CFO in 2010, when, as chairman of Disney Theme Parks, he switched positions with then-CFO Thomas Staggs — said he knows what a good movie is and what good television looks like.
Rasulo spoke of the difference between his old, operating job and his CFO position. “The theme-park business was a 12-or-13-billion-dollar business when I left it, and you really had to focus on running it. It was a worldwide operation, open 24 hours a day, and a very complicated business. Although you’re on the executive team of the company and know all your colleagues at the highest level, you can’t understand what’s really going on in their business because you are so focused on your own business and its issues.”
In the CFO role, by contrast, “you get to experience the breadth of the Walt Disney Company in all its businesses, from ESPN to the film studio to the consumer products to the Disney Interactive parks. One role is extraordinarily deep and one extraordinarily broad. I feel very fortunate to have been able to do both.”
Rasulo said his finance job requires him to have two personalities, which he likened to Disney characters: freewheeling good guy Sheriff Woody from the Toy Story movie franchise and the grumpy, greedy cartoon icon Scrooge McDuck.
One of Rasulo’s duties is heading up the company’s citizenship and sustainability efforts. “Lots of financial pressures would make you kind of not want to be the kind of corporate citizen you should be,” he says. “The other side of that is that it’s essential to our brand and authenticity. Woody keeps reminding me I have to be Woody sometimes, with a big heart and loving everybody. But I’m still counting the money as Scrooge McDuck.”
Rasulo was asked if he’d rather have five minutes with Federal Reserve Board chairman Janet Yellen or a five-year-old kid who’d just gone to a Disney park for the first time. “That’s an easy one — way too easy,” he said. “I’ve had a million of those conversations with kids and they’re all great. And they’re always honest, which is the best thing.”
But if he did have five minutes with Yellen? What would he say? Taking a slap at her perhaps hazy policy for quantitative easing and interest rates going forward, Rasulo said, “I’d say ‘clarity, clarity, clarity.’ That’s what finance executives function the best under. If we had clarity about the rules going forward we would optimize under those rules. The hardest world to play in is one in which you don’t know the rules of the game or they keep changing.”