Imagineering the CFO: Lessons from Disney’s Gary L. Wilson

Gary Wilson, CFO of Walt Disney

Since joining the Walt Disney Company in 1985, Gary Wilson has been “Imagineering” a career that should serve as inspiration for chief financial officers everywhere. During Wilson’s tenure at the Walt Disney Company, market capitalization boomed from $2 billion to an astonishing $20 billion, theme park and hotel accommodations expanded to over 5 times their original size, and international growth skyrocketed. These avenues of growth all point to the value of the CFO, whose financial sophistication and strategic approach to business can yield success for any organization.

At the age of 65, Wilson understands that one of the most important lessons for CFOs is to understand how the role of the CFO has changed and will continue to change. When Wilson first became a financial executive 25 years ago, it didn’t take “a rocket scientist to be a top financial executive.” Wilson says that today, “a CFO needs more technical and strategic skill because the financial game has changed.” He attributes this to the “depression mentality” that pervaded the nation in the 1970s and 1980s. A successful CFO today will behave like a key operating executive who happens to also have strong financial talent.

Gaining Experience Like Gary L. Wilson

To climb in position and influence, Gary Wilson encourages CFOs to continue pushing their boundaries and stepping outside of that proverbial comfort zone. In his own career, Wilson is one of the few CFOs who began working for a small business instead of a major corporation. Because he had a broader view of business and a broader understanding of finances in a variety of settings and sizes, Wilson was able to adjust his solutions to fit whatever business situation was thrown at him. Many CFOs get locked into a specialized function.

Furthermore, Gary Wilson considers creating value for shareholders to be his primary job responsibility. Aside from crunching numbers and analyzing cash flow, Wilson says that it’s important to realize that a good CFO brings intangible assets to his or her company. Company image and customer satisfaction are all intangible factors that eventually impact the bottom line. When CFOs understand this, they can play a much more pivotal role in their organization.