By Phil Rockrohr
Photo courtesy of Jay Rasulo/Disney

Becoming chief financial officer of the world’s largest media and entertainment company has been a perspective-expanding experience for Jay Rasulo, AM’82, MBA’84.

The vastness and complexity of the Walt Disney Company struck Rasulo most recently with the release of the movie Toy Story 3. The film is accompanied by video games, retail products, and an array of online tie-ins, not to mention high visibility in the company’s parks and resorts and on the Disney Channel.

Helping to lead such efforts draws on all the creativity and analytical skill that Rasulo has cultivated during 24 years at Disney, and before that as an economics and MBA student at the University of Chicago. He says he feels a keen responsibility as a leader of an organization that employs more than 140,000 people worldwide, in pursuits ranging from cartoons to cruise ships to cable channels.

“There simply are not very many companies that have the strength of brand and franchise to appeal to consumers in all those channels,” Rasulo says. “We constantly remind ourselves that this makes us different from other media companies, sustains us through bad times, and lets us absolutely flourish in good times.”

Chicago Booth Teaches Valuable Lessons

A native New Yorker, Rasulo received his undergraduate economics degree from Columbia University before coming to Chicago. He says much of his business outlook was shaped by two UChicago professors: the late economics professor B. Peter Pashigian, and Eugene Fama, the Robert R. McCormick Distinguished Service Professor of Finance at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

Rasulo says he spent considerable time studying with Pashigian, who conducted research on pricing and shopping practices and wrote the book Price Theory and Applications. ”Applying microeconomic theory to business decision-making has served me extremely well and will continue to serve me in this current role,” Rasulo says.

After joining Disney in 1986 as director of strategic planning and development, Rasulo advanced to become president of Euro Disney. There he led the successful overhaul of the resort, an experience that reinforced the roles of creativity and flexibility in business success.

In developing a research-based marketing strategy for the operation, Rasulo discovered that Europeans wanted the authentic Mickey Mouse—but not necessarily American hamburgers and beer. Rather, they wanted to be treated like Europeans, “with language-appropriate signage and their own foods and wines, and all the rest,” he says.

The approach helped Euro Disney’s attendance, and the park overcame some rocky times to become Europe’s most popular tourist attraction, drawing more visitors than the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre combined. Rasulo’s success with Euro Disney led to his appointment in 2002 as chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, where he mapped the growth strategy for the Disney Cruise Line and other family vacation programs, and led negotiations with the Chinese government to build a new theme park in Shanghai.

Combining Marketing Savvy, Financial Strategy

At the beginning of 2010, Rasulo became senior executive vice president and chief financial officer of the Walt Disney Company, assuming financial and strategic leadership of an organization with more than $36 billion in annual revenue. He has seized the chance to merge his earlier marketing savvy with financial strategies that support the company’s ability to thrive and innovate.

The move exposed Rasulo to a group of colleagues who approach Disney ”from a slightly different perspective,” he says. ”Although I operated a large part of the company in my previous position, the role of CFO allows me to acquire in-depth knowledge about all aspects of the company, which is an interesting and exciting opportunity,” Rasulo says. ”I also have the responsibility of representing the company to investors and Wall Street, which is an aspect of the job that I have really enjoyed.”

Rasulo attributes his company’s success, even during an economic downturn, to Disney CEO Bob Iger’s focus on three strategic pillars: creativity in products and their delivery, the use of technology to enhance offerings, and expansion of the company’s international footprint. Part of Rasulo’s role is to ensure that the company never strays from fundamental financial principles, such as understanding the value of different parts of the enterprise and ranking capital projects based on their returns to shareholders.

“It is literally the kind of stuff you learn when you’re at Chicago Booth,” Rasulo says. “I basically propagate that philosophy through all of our business units. They all use the same methods and all recognize the same kinds of measures, even though they might have different key success factors and metrics in each business.”

Rasulo says his previous experience, from Booth to Burbank, gives him an appreciation for the nuances of Disney’s many operations, even as he sets his sights on the company’s long-term strategy and finances. Sometimes those priorities overlap, as with the company’s response to Apple’s new iPad tablet computer.

“When the iPad was released, part of our legacy demanded we be out right on opening day with great apps,” Rasulo says.

Most of Rasulo’s duties entail setting strategies that are larger than any single product. He helps lead a corporate team that is focused on the big picture, planning for long-term financial success and the deployment of assets across the wide-ranging portfolio of Disney’s businesses.

“That is where I like to spend my time, needless to say,” Rasulo says.

Originally published on June 21, 2010.