On Monday 11 July 2016 Catherine Powell starts in her new role as President of Euro Disney S.A.S. replacing Tom Wolber who will return to the United States to take on operational responsibilities of the Disney Cruise Line.
From Sydney to Euro Disney, Catherine Powell’s charmed path to Paris
Catherine Powell had the briefest of stints running Disney Australia before she was appointed president of Euro Disney SAS, which runs Disneyland Paris. It sounds like a dream job, but the theme park has been unprofitable for much of its life since opening in 1992, despite being Europe’s most visited tourist attraction. In 2015, the Walt Disney company bailed out Euro Disney to the tune of $US1 billion ($1.5 billion), in return securing a controlling stake.
Powell has chosen not to speak about her new role at Euro Disney as she hasn’t started yet, but the task in Paris will likely be far more challenging than her Australian role.
A rising star at Disney, Powell started her career making corporate videos, after studying politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford, and then moved on to producing news documentaries, before following her husband Hugh Powell, then a British diplomat, to Paris, where she worked in TV rights for the BBC.
“I’d never really thought of myself as a sort of businesswoman. But I discovered quite quickly working in France, in TV distribution, that I loved negotiation, I loved rights, I loved the numbers, I loved the commercial side of it.
“Studying philosophy really taught you how to structure an argument and in negotiation, it’s basically an argument. And I think there’s a beauty to negotiations when you have complicated deals and you’re trying to craft something, particularly if you’re trying to craft it so that both parties feel good about it.”
After her move to Disney, it was Powell’s career that dictated the family’s moves. She says she told her husband: “I followed you around the place for 10 years. The next 10 years are mine.” While husband was British Prime Minister David Cameron’s deputy national security adviser, she ran distribution for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, at a time rights negotiations were becoming far more complex due to burgeoning digital technology.
“The clients that we were dealing with were no longer the BBC or RTZ, it was iTunes, Google, PlayStation and Microsoft.” There was a proliferation in the channels to deliver content and Disney was “at the cutting-edge of these deals because we had the content that people wanted on these new devices, all these new platforms, all these new products”.
Disney found itself, with its store of valuable content, in a position of power. “We were incredibly open-minded and curious about what technology could bring and the commercial opportunities that it opened up for us. The new revenue streams. You could look at the way in which programs were sold; could they be sold to one person on one platform for one experience and then later to someone else for a different experience?” For example, Disney was the first company to put long-form episodes on the iPod.
“We leverage technology in how we create all the amazing content that you see,” she says. “Technology defines how content is created, how it is distributed and how it is consumed.”
“For any content supplier, it was an absolutely wonderful time,” she says. Not so for legacy media companies, tied to one expensive platform. “If you had a platform that couldn’t respond to the sort of digital expectations of the consumer, you were in trouble.”
Disney she says, has a reputation for being tough. “We have a premium that goes with our brand.” But, she says, “We try to go for a win-win.” As a leader she has learnt – especially in the Australian role, where she was running nine lines of business including stage shows, retail and licensing products, theatrical release of films, programming and distributing television channels – that she has to delegate more.
“I have been a perfectionist, I have been somebody who enjoys mastering details, I’ve been somebody who absolutely needs to be prepared, I still think you need to be prepared all the time.” But as a leader, your definition of perfection has to change, she says.
Australia was a nearly saturated market with little growth expected. So Powell had to leverage the brand better across the business.
“It’s about one voice of the consumer, one brand to the consumer and that brand experience should be the same wherever you are. It was about taking our partners with us and saying, ‘Use the brand, lean into it, let us show you how we can bring the magic of Disney to retail or in the products, the experiences that we create.’
“We’ll make sure that we all know what each other is doing. If there’s something happening in the TV space, they will know what is happening at the retail space and vice versa, they will know what’s happening online, what other partners are doing. You connect it and it becomes a much bigger noise. And then consumers notice it and they spend more, and then our clients are happy and it becomes a virtuous circle.
“There were discussions that we’ve had with partners from all businesses where they would worry about value and saying, ‘You know, the Disney premium, we can’t afford it’, or ‘You’re too expensive.’ I would say, ‘Value doesn’t mean cheap. Value means that people feel good about what they’re paying for.’
“People don’t like being told the things are going to cost more. At the moment there’s a lot of sensitivity around the economy. It’s defining value as something where you bring something special and consumers feel good about it, and also helping our partners.”
She’ll miss the drive across the Sydney Harbour Bridge to work but retains a strong Australian connection. Her son is studying here, and she will keep the coveted role as director of that other icon, the Sydney Opera House Trust, chaired by Nicholas Moore, the chief executive of Macquarie Group, who employs Powell’s husband.