By Carolyn Gray Anderson
In the late 1970s, Christine McCarthy (’81) was preparing to leave a career in banking for a Ph.D. in biology. Or so she thought: Following the death of her father, someone planted the idea that she should pursue an MBA for greater earning power than she could expect in academe — particularly in the male-dominated sciences. Vacillating between living on the East Coast or the West Coast and on the basis that “sometimes you just have to make it up as you go along,” McCarthy enrolled at UCLA Anderson to earn her MBA.
Not that business was exactly welcoming to women executives: but if McCarthy has ever regretted her choice, she need only consult her own resume for proof that glass ceilings were no impediment. Once the youngest EVP at First Interstate Bank, the self-described “accidental MBA” is also the Walt Disney Company’s first female CFO, a role she assumed in 2015 after five years with the company, where she started as treasurer.
McCarthy, whose distinctions include the Los Angeles Business Journal’s 2016 Executive of the Year award, visited UCLA Anderson as the first spring 2017 guest in the Dean’s Distinguished Speaker Series. Her appearance coincided with Anderson’s annual Impact Week in part because Disney as a company has made a commitment to social and environmental responsibility, and McCarthy oversees its corporate citizenship — with positive results over the last six years that parallel Disney’s financial success. Among UCLA Anderson’s long-term strategic goals is to elevate the school’s social mission, and conscious, connected leaders set the standard for the MBAs who follow their examples.
McCarthy’s personal impact also resonates because UCLA Anderson is dedicated to greater inclusion and equity. She told the audience that Disney chair and CEO Bob Iger “took a risk” appointing her to the C-suite, suggesting that a high-profile enterprise is still likelier to be scrutinized more closely for breaking with a conventional organizational chart. “You have to have a rapport with the entire executive management team,” she said, “and a complete, consistent dialogue with the board,” all of whom will be expecting more from someone representing a “first” like McCarthy does.
“Finance is a very portable skill,” said McCarthy, who found when she shifted from banking to entertainment that, although she had to learn an entirely different industry, she could apply all her most valuable and well-honed talents with every confidence they would serve the company. She advised MBA students to “Develop an expertise,” and “Don’t approach your first job as your last job.” And she should know: McCarthy was CFO of Imperial Bank when the firm was taken over in a merger, and she found herself considering embarking on a Ph.D. for a second time when her sister, an investment banker, asked her if she might not consider applying to Disney for the treasurer position. McCarthy once again veered from the academic track and, 23 interviews later (yes, Class of 2017, that’s 23), McCarthy was welcomed aboard.
McCarthy’s conversation with Dean Olian predominantly addressed Disney’s global investing model and the areas of business concentration that have seen the greatest disruption. McCarthy balances the pressure on a major publicly traded company to deliver short-term financial returns with the wisdom of a longer view. “Sometimes you have to look at your business beyond the next 90 days,” she said. Although Disney faced criticism for allegedly overpaying for marquee acquisitions like Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm, McCarthy points to their success under Disney’s umbrella as evidence of the company’s sustained strategy. “Disney animation had lost its way,” she said, and high-quality branded IP franchises revived the meaningful storytelling Walt Disney’s most enduring films are known and loved for. Case in point: Zootopia won the 2016 Oscar for Best Animated Feature.
“If there’s one part of Disney’s business being disrupted,” McCarthy said, “it’s media. The traditional subscriber universe is declining. Technology is giving consumers infinite options for access.” Like all media companies, she said, Disney is figuring out how to give consumers skinnier bundles, and the company also assumed 30 percent ownership of the BAM Tech streaming venture for appeal to sports fans.
McCarthy, whose experience extends to international markets and foreign currency risk, commented that Disney’s global scale makes taking risks in overseas investments even riskier. For that and other reasons, Disney reinvests its foreign profits back into its foreign properties, like Disneyland Shanghai, which McCarthy said is quite successful. “Disney is a text book case of best-in-class with regard to managing currency risk,” she said, adding that she believes tax reform will be absolutely necessary to keep U.S. companies competitive.
But does Disney ever proceed with anything but the most calculated precaution, Olian and the audience wanted to know? Perhaps it’s McCarthy’s polished expertise that makes Disney only seem risk-averse. She was frank on the subject: “We view insurgency as a necessity,” she said. “If you succeed at everything you do, you’re probably not trying hard enough.”