Chairman, Walt Disney Parks & Resorts
Class of 1978
Watch Tom's Acceptance Speech
Tom Staggs took a welcomed, creative turn from Wall Street investment banking when he joined the Walt Disney Company in 1990. Twenty years later, he’s found himself as Chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, at the helm of the company’s worldwide vacation and travel enterprise.
"Disney gave me a chance to be involved with a product that I could relate to and a creative process that was interesting,” says the 1978 MHS graduate. First hired by Disney as manager Staggs quickly rose through a series of impressive titles, including senior vice president and chief financial officer.
Staggs, who humbly describes the theme of his career as good luck, says his attitude could be summarized by some thoughts from Frank Wells, president of Disney until 1994. “He told me that he never had a grand scheme — which seemed awfully familiar to me — but that he focused on doing the best job he could at whatever job he was in. When the learning curve for that job might be flattening, someone would present him with an opportunity to do something exciting. He invariably took it and it led to other things,” explains Staggs. “The key being that he focused on doing the job he was in to the best of his abilities instead of worrying about what the next thing might be. That’s been my approach all along the way.”
Reflecting on his years in Minnetonka, Staggs says the teacher that influenced him the most was Dan Geldert, MHS band director from 1962 to 1997. “He was probably one of my most demanding teachers in terms of excellence and dedication and focus, but at the same time, he ended up getting the best work out of students,” says Staggs, who was and is a trumpet player. “He enjoyed what he did and clearly helped people realize that when they did focus, did well and excelled, that the rewards were commensurate with the effort.”
Staggs, who holds a business degree from the University of Minnesota and an MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business, began college with an intention to major in music, perhaps a sign of Dan Geldert’s influence, though he quickly realized that for him it was to be more of an avocation than a vocation. While music did not end up being his life’s calling, he says that the discipline has served him well. Not long ago, Geldert touched his life again, sending some old tapes from past band concerts. “It was pretty fun to hear [those performances] after so many years,” says Staggs, “and my son decided to take up the trumpet as a result.”
Family has always been important to Staggs. Growing up in Excelsior, near the Commons, the Staggs’ back yard would always be filled with family and friends to celebrate and watch fireworks on the Fourth of July. Sailing was something Tom’s step father really enjoyed, so Tom became involved as a judge for the local yacht club races. And cooking is something that his mom and the three brothers — Jeff ’76, Rod ’77, and Tom — have always loved doing together. (Their lucky spouses don’t have to lift a finger on holidays!) “When Tom and I were going to the U,” reminisces Jeff Staggs, “we figured out we could commute back together, team up and make an apple pie in a half hour, so it would be done right when our favorite TV show was over. We could watch M*A*S*H and then have apple pie.”
Jeff Staggs, president of Business Coaching International in Mound, works with top executives like his brother. “I really admire what Tom’s done with his kids, probably more so than his business accomplishments, because that’s the harder thing to do,” he says. “And that he’s been able to do both is pretty amazing.”
Tom admits it’s different raising kids in Los Angeles than in Minnesota and a challenge balancing the demands of his job, but family is always a priority. “We spend a whole lot of time reinforcing the importance of family and a sense of personal humility,” he says. “It’s fine to strive to be successful. And it’s even fine to celebrate that success, in my opinion, as long as that doesn’t make you think you are somehow better than the people around you.” When teased that it must be a challenge when the kids have a lifetime pass to Disneyworld, he replies, “My kids know that I’ve told everyone I run into at the park that if they [the kids] misbehave at all, they [park employees] all have permission to take corrective action.”
Thinking back to high school, Staggs says it wasn’t about one thing that he learned, or one subject, but that MHS was a great place to start because of the relationships created and the sense of community around the school. “As you can tell, I don’t think having a clear blueprint for life when you graduate from high school is necessary, and for most people it’s not even all that desirable,” says Staggs. “Better to have a blueprint for being adaptable and resilient and to persevere on whatever path you choose. That will likely lead to a better outcome more often than having some notion of a dedicated direction.”