Investor Peltz takes on Iger's kingdom with fight for Disney board seat

  • Peltz suggests buying all of Hulu or exiting streaming business
  • Disney shares gain 4%
  • CEO Iger returned from retirement to lead company

Jan 12 (Reuters) - Activist investor Nelson Peltz on Thursday formally launched a battle for a board seat at Walt Disney Co (DIS.N) to rescue the entertainment giant from what he called a "crisis" of overspending on the streaming business, the purchase of 21st Century Fox and failed succession planning.

The billionaire's move is a serious challenge to Disney Chief Executive Bob Iger, who recently returned from retirement to lead the company for a second time. The battle would pit the activist investor known for his work at consumer firms against Iger, one of the most popular executives in Hollywood.

Disney's shares, which have tumbled 39% in the past year, jumped more than 4%. Some analysts pointed to Peltz's past successes in bringing changes at firms.

Iger is expected to focus on performance of the money-losing Disney+ streaming business he helped launch in 2019. Peltz told CNBC on Thursday that Disney should either jettison that business or buy the rest of rival streaming service Hulu. Disney has a majority stake in Hulu; Comcast Corp (CMCSA.O) owns the rest.

Disney has said it expects the streaming business to be profitable by 2024, after it lost nearly $1.5 billion in the last reported quarter.

The tussle with Disney could be Peltz's biggest proxy battle since an acrimonious fight to bag a seat on the board of Tide detergent-maker P&G (PG.N). During his more than three-year tenure on P&G's board, the firm's stock price rose nearly 80%.

Peltz's Trian Fund Management owns a 0.5%, or roughly $900 million stake in Disney. The fund on Thursday filed documents with the U.S. securities regulator for his election as a director after Disney denied him a board seat.

The company has faced activist investor pressure and need to boost profits at Disney+

"Investors would appreciate additional assurance that past problems won't repeat," Rosenblatt Securities said. "Peltz - with a change-maker history at targets including P&G, (Kraft) Heinz (KHC.O) and Wendy's - could provide a measure of that."

Unless Peltz settles with Disney, investors will vote this year on whether he should sit on the company's board. Last year, the annual shareholder meeting was held on March 9.

Disney also needs to boost capital expenditure at its parks business, where it probably raised ticket prices "too hard," he said in a CNBC interview. It "is more than a media company and is a consumer company," he said.

Disney did not respond to requests for comment.

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Iger has already rolled back some price hikes that the parks division implemented under previous CEO Bob Chapek, and started his second stint with a vow to focus on cost cuts and profitability.

Analysts believe the executive, who Peltz says he does not want to replace, could be a major hurdle in the activist's plan.

"Iger is a well-liked CEO, not only within Disney and its employees but also in Hollywood and the stock market. Peltz might find it tough to gain traction with this campaign," said Ben Barringer, equity research analyst at Quilter Cheviot.

During Iger's first tenure, Disney made several key acquisitions, including Pixar Animation Studios, Marvel Entertainment and 21st Century Fox. Its market capitalization rose five-fold

The company has also faced pressure from Third Point's Daniel Loeb to spin off cable sports channel ESPN, refresh its board and buy Comcast's stake in Hulu - which has around 46 million subscribers.

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Reporting by Akash Sriram, Aditya Soni, Chavi Mehta and Nivedita Balu in Bengaluru; Editing by Shinjini Ganguli and David Gregorio

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Akash reports on technology companies in the United States, electric vehicle companies, and the space industry. His reporting usually appears in the Autos & Transportation and Technology sections. He has a postgraduate degree in Conflict, Development, and Security from the University of Leeds. Akash's interests include music, football (soccer), and Formula 1.