Activist investor ValueAct has been building a stake in Disney

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In this article

Disney CEO Bob Iger speaking with CNBC’s David Faber at the Allen&Co. Annual Conference in Sun Valley, Idaho.
David A. Grogan | CNBC

ValueAct Capital has taken a significant stake in Disney (DIS) and has been in dialogue with Disney’s management, the Activist Spotlight has learned. This is a new stake not previously disclosed in filings or media reports.

Here’s a breakdown of the situation:

Company: Walt Disney Co.

Business: Disney is one of the most iconic entertainment companies globally. It operates through two segments, Disney Media and Entertainment Distribution; and Disney Parks, Experiences and Products. Disney engages in film and TV content production and distribution activities, as well as operates television broadcast networks and studios.

Stock Market Value: $167 Billion ($91.07 a share)

Activist: ValueAct Capital

Percentage Ownership: n/a

Average Cost: low $80s per share

Activist Commentary: ValueAct has been a premier corporate governance investor for over 20 years. ValueAct principals are generally on the boards of half of ValueAct’s core portfolio positions and have had 56 public company board seats over 23 years. ValueAct has filed 89 13D’s in their history and has had an average return of 57.57% versus 17.52% for the S&P 500 over the same period.

Behind the scenes:

ValueAct knows technology very well as seen by their active investments at Salesforce, Microsoft, and Adobe where they had board seats. They also know media well as active investors at the New York Times, Spotify and 21st Century Fox.

ValueAct began buying Disney this summer during the WGA and SAG strikes and it is one of the firm’s largest positions. The activist investor has been in dialogue with Disney’s management and are still growing their position today.

ValueAct believes that Disney’s theme parks and consumer products businesses and their $10 billion in EBIT (earnings before interest and taxes) are alone worth low $80s per share, ValueAct’s approximate cost basis in the stock.

The theme parks unit has a high return on capital, allowing Disney to further monetize its intellectual property. Amongst its peers like Warner Bros, Paramount and Netflix, Disney is the only one who has this advantage. Moreover, this is a business that is not threatened by technology, but enhanced by it.

For example, Disney’s Genie app, which allows park visitors to be guided through the parks in a way that minimizes their wait time, greatly enhances the visitor experience. Moreover, Disney has recently announced that it will be investing $60 billion into theme parks, which will be money well spent.

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Disney YTD

This theme park valuation implies an almost zero valuation for the rest of Disney’s business that includes ESPN, theatrical movie releases, Disney+, Hulu and its television networks. Like digital news and music, video streaming was greatly disrupted by the internet and the low cost of capital from 2016 to 2021 afforded streaming companies, almost unlimited capital to acquire customers at any cost. Then with rising interest rates and inflation, that bubble burst in 2022 and there was a massive re-rating of assets globally.

Many of the high-growth companies that had easy access to capital now find themselves the most capital constrained they had been in a long time. This gives a huge advantage to companies like Disney, which has a market leading brand and an incumbent business model with strong customer relations.

Now, these streaming wars are in the process of resolving and companies are focused more on profitability than acquiring customers at any cost. This means cutting costs and creating growing and sustainable revenue.

ValueAct has experience in both of these areas. At Salesforce, where ValueAct CIO Mason Morfit is on the board, margins have gone from 18% to 32% while the stock has gone from $130 to $220 in 10 months. Disney has already announced an aggressive cost cutting plan, but it is the revenue opportunity that is more interesting here.

At portfolio companies like Adobe, Microsoft, Salesforce, Spotify and the New York Times, ValueAct has advocated for and assisted in creating bundles, pricing tiers and advertising stacks that have led to less churn, more pricing power, higher average revenue per user and even better advertising technology.

Both the New York Times and Spotify increased their bundles (NYT with Wordle, the Athletic, etc.; Spotify with podcasting and audiobooks) and both increased subscription pricing. The New York Times’ stock went from $30 per share to $45 per share and Spotify went from approximately $80 per share to $175 per share. Disney has numerous opportunities for bundling, price tiers, etc. and there are many ways this can work out through its present assets, M&A, alliances and licensing, but intelligently bundling its products will lead to more stable and valuable revenue. Based on similar situations that ValueAct has been involved in, this could lead to up to $15 billion of EBIT for the media assets and a Disney stock price as high as $190 per share.

ValueAct has a history of creating value through board seats, including at Salesforce and Microsoft, but has also added value as active shareholders in situations like Spotify and the New York Times.

I would expect that they would want a board seat here and as someone who has a reputation of working amicably and constructively with boards, the Disney board should welcome them with open arms. Aside from their extensive experience at technology companies and media companies and their innovative and relevant history of growing sustainable revenue at similar companies, there is one other reason shareholders should welcome them to the board.

Bob Iger returned to Disney in 2022 with an initial two-year contract with the explicit goal of righting the ship. The board formed a succession planning committee at that time. Iger subsequently extended his employment agreement through 2026 but longer-term succession remains one of the board’s most important priorities. Having a shareholder representative on the board is very helpful in that area particularly one like ValueAct, whose CIO participated in one of the most audacious and successful CEO successions ever when Satya Nadella replaced Steve Ballmer as CEO of Microsoft. Someone with that experience and perspective would be invaluable in navigating CEO succession at Disney.

Finally, we cannot ignore the fact that Disney is presently the target of a proxy fight by Nelson Peltz and Trian Partners that is turning somewhat confrontational. This certainly gives the Disney board an alternative they were not expecting.

Ken Squire is the founder and president of 13D Monitor, an institutional research service on shareholder activism, and the founder and portfolio manager of the 13D Activist Fund, a mutual fund that invests in a portfolio of activist 13D investments.

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