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The Woman Behind the Mouse
Disney has thrived under the leadership of chief financial officer Christine McCarthy ’77. But her career and life haven’t always been a fairy tale.
When Christine McCarthy ’77 was 9 years old, she had to write a report on her hero. Her choice: Amelia Earhart. “I idolized her because she did adventurous things men did and broke barriers,” McCarthy recalls.
Like her high-flying role model, McCarthy has soared. In 2015 she became chief financial officer (CFO) of The Walt Disney Company, making her the highest-ranking woman in the company’s history. She joined the $210 billion company as treasurer in 2000 after more than 15 years in the banking industry.
As the second most important person at the world’s largest global media and entertainment company, McCarthy has helped craft and implement the visions of two CEOs, Bob Iger and Bob Chapek, on a strategic and day-to-day basis. Her ascent made her one of the most powerful women in the entertainment industry, according to the Entertainment Diversity Council, and one of the relatively few female CFOs at Fortune 100 companies.
McCarthy has always remembered something the pioneering Earhart once said: “Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.”
She likes to tell friends she has the best job in the world. She has achieved almost every imaginable career goal, but her path has been bumpy. At Smith and as a young adult, she struggled with anorexia and depression. Early in her career, she battled sexism, including pay inequities, and she juggled career demands while raising two children. While at Disney, her challenges became more daunting. She fought and conquered HER2-positive breast cancer not once but twice: in 2000, five months after joining Disney, and in 2015, after being named CFO.
“I have promised myself that I can and will get through anything,” she says.
Disney ranks as the 53rd-largest company in the Fortune 500, and during McCarthy’s tenure, it survived—and powered through—9/11, the Great Recession, and COVID-19. It opened new theme parks and purchased Pixar, Lucasfilm, Marvel, and 21st Century Fox. Most recently, it launched Disney+, which is on track to be the world’s largest streaming service.
“Christine has seen Disney through a massive business transition of its global empire,” says Jessica Reif Ehrlich, a managing director with BofA Securities. “She’s done a remarkable job.”
McCarthy’s longtime friend and Chapin House suitemate Connie Morris Jarowey ’76 adds, “For Christine, life is not a practice round, so quitting isn’t an option. You’d better make it count.”
“The accidental MBA” is how McCarthy sometimes refers to herself. She never planned on a business career. After studying biology at Smith, she went to Los Angeles to get hands-on experience before seeking a doctorate in botany.
Deep down, McCarthy was concerned about her long-term earning potential, so she pivoted to a business degree at UCLA. It was the late 1970s, and some women in the program were timid, afraid to participate in class. Not McCarthy, who credits Smith with giving her the confidence to speak up. “I felt that empowerment,” she says. “You don’t win anything by waiting for things to just come along.”
At a time when few women entered the financial industry, McCarthy’s can-do personality led her to choose a career in banking. “It wasn’t real friendly,” she says. Early on, some men resented her. “They would have rather spit at me than say hello,” McCarthy says. “There were so many times when I was the only female in meetings. I could either be subservient and quiet or bold, and the latter was the approach I took.”
At 5 feet, 11 inches tall and with long red hair, she definitely stood out. “I had a physical presence that could not be ignored. I was aggressive. I was playing the game to win,” she says. She learned her height gave her an advantage and that how she carried herself and established a presence were assets in business. She rose to become executive vice president of finance at one of the nation’s largest banks, First Interstate Bancorp, and later served as CFO of Imperial Bancorp.
“For Christine, life is not a practice round. You’d better make it count.”
McCarthy put off marriage to now-husband Michael, the head of a family-owned real estate business, until she was 36. She gave birth to son Daniel at age 37. Daughter Kelsey was born when McCarthy was 39. The head of investor relations at her bank, she traveled constantly and took two-week maternity leaves. “When I look back at bonding with my son and daughter, I shortchanged them and myself,” she says. “I thrived on the challenge in a very strange way, and I also wanted to stay in the game.”
Along the way, she fought for what she was worth. At First Interstate, she discovered that her male peers’ stock options were far higher than hers. She raised the issue with the CEO, who took it to the bank’s board and made things right. “But that was the only time I did it,” McCarthy says. “I probably should have been doing that all along.”
Luckily, she found mentors to speed her career path, including a First Interstate CEO who told her, “Just remember, if you don’t have integrity, you don’t have anything.” Looking back, she began to realize that, as ambitious as she was, her career was about more than herself.
When she became CFO of Disney, she vowed to lead with the motto, “As you’re going up the ladder, pull people up behind you.”
Debra O’Connell, president of networks at Disney Media and Entertainment Distribution, remembers how McCarthy unofficially mentored her over the years, especially during COVID. During that time, McCarthy spent every weekend checking in with O’Connell and other female executives. “She was so there for me. She was a big part of how I got through that,” O’Connell says. McCarthy gives back in other ways too. She has served on the boards of trustees of Smith College, the Carnegie Institution for Science, and the Westridge School—the private school in Pasadena, California, that her daughter attended.
Going Where No One Has Gone Before
Growing up in a center-hall colonial in the Boston suburb of Wakefield, Massachusetts, McCarthy never wanted to be a pilot—or an actress like her other hero, Katharine Hepburn—but she did want to venture where no other woman had gone before. “It was how [Earhart and Hepburn] lived that made me want to be like them—strong, courageous, fearless. I felt I was always told what I could not do. Setting my sights on things I was told were impossible became goals for me,” says McCarthy, who practiced with the boys track team in high school and played golf and swam competitively.
Sunday Mass was a must for her family. TV was limited to a half hour a day. McCarthy’s favorite program was The Mickey Mouse Club, an after-school show that featured a cast of bright-eyed teens. Her family never went to Disneyland, but McCarthy has kept a Disney childhood souvenir for 60 years—a black Mickey Mouse beanie like the ones worn by TV’s Mouseketeers. Though its round white ears have yellowed, her name remains embroidered on its brow in cursive script.
But behind the walls of this seemingly normal middle-class home lived a troubled family. McCarthy’s mother struggled with the demands of child rearing. Her father could be aloof and demanding. McCarthy excelled in school, sports, and playing the viola. But “doing things well did not translate to happiness,” she recalls.
Childhood traumas caused her to go to “very dark places” in her mind.
She adored her father, a general manager at Harry M. Stevens, the company that revolutionized the modern ballpark concessions experience. “I unconsciously learned a lot of things about business from him,” she says. “Watching him interact with people in a variety of situations rubbed off on me.”
He held his daughter to the highest standards. “I always got A’s, and if not, I was punished. Yet a lot of my tenacity, drive, and determination came from him,” she says.
McCarthy says she had a strained relationship with her mother, a stay-at-home mom who raised three other children. “She didn’t like me taking charge and making decisions. At a young age, I would make plans to get things done. My mother would refer to me as ‘the director,’ and it wasn’t a compliment.”
Her mother suffered a nervous breakdown following the death of one of Christine’s newborn siblings. Christine, then age 7, was sent away—without explanation—to live with her grandparents for a time before returning home.
Childhood traumas caused McCarthy to go to “very dark places” in her mind as a teenager, she says. She became anorexic, a malady that dogged her undergraduate years. She transferred to Smith as a junior from Connecticut College.
“I was a textbook case,” McCarthy says. “I felt I couldn’t control things around me. I had extremely low self-esteem and wanted to crawl into myself deeper and deeper. I was driven to control my life, and what I ate was one of the only things I could control. It wasn’t a conscious decision. It just was.”
McCarthy says her “demons took a vacation” when she was engaged with Smith friends or schoolwork. Manic behavior alternated with bouts of depression. One semester, she finished all her reading and projects a month before the term ended.
“I was more susceptible to the lows when I went home for school breaks,” she recalls. After graduating from Smith, she rarely returned home.
While McCarthy was in Los Angeles, her father suddenly died of a brain aneurysm at the age of 51. “I was devastated,” she recalls. “I was guilt ridden because I was never able to say goodbye. It was another major abandonment to me. He was the parent who understood me. I was like him.”
McCarthy has fought so many battles that her life story might have been conceived by a Disney screenwriter. One rainy Sunday night in 2011, she flew into John F. Kennedy International Airport for a meeting in Manhattan the following morning. In a hurry to get through the terminal, she fell and landed on her shoulder. Something felt terribly wrong, but she managed to stumble to her driver and get to her hotel.
There, she ran into a Disney colleague who insisted she go to the emergency room. The diagnosis? A shattered left clavicle. She returned to the hotel, got dressed with the help of a friend, and made it to the 9 a.m. meeting. A few days later, she underwent surgery.
But the battle of her life began five months after she started at Disney, when she was diagnosed with HER2-positive breast cancer. She was 44. Two days after learning the news, she underwent surgery. Natacha Rafalski, now president of Disneyland Paris, worked on her team and remembers McCarthy making daily trips to the hospital adjacent to Disney’s Burbank headquarters for radiation therapy. “I have always been amazed by her resilience, strength, and commitment to her work, and I’m not the only one,” Rafalski says.
“You’ve got to treat challenges as, ‘I’m going to win. You’re not going to win.’”
Then, after 15 years of remission, a new HER2-positive cancer was diagnosed in 2015, five months after her promotion to CFO. Today McCarthy can joke about the disease’s recurrence, saying, “I’m not changing jobs again. Every time I change jobs, I get bad news.”
At the time, it was difficult to find the humor. “I was just angry I had this nasty aggressive cancer again. There was no pity party for me. I wasn’t going to give this damn cancer one ounce of my spirit,” she says. Her oncologist told her to stay angry. She did, even through “really rough” chemotherapy.
As before, she continued to work while being treated. When getting chemo, she brought her laptop, cellphone, and papers. “People find their ways to get through tough times,” she says. “For me, it was my work and proving to myself and others I was here to stay. You’ve got to treat challenges as, ‘I’m going to win. You’re not going to win.’ I knew I was tough, a survivor, but this was quite the test, and I surprised even myself. I never once cried about it.”
“Nothing stops her, and she goes forward with grace,” says her Smith friend Connie Jarowey, a registered nurse who helped her recuperate. “For her, everything is an adventure.”
Making the Right Calls
Not surprisingly, Disney has renewed McCarthy’s contract through 2024. She has successfully overseen the company’s worldwide finance organization while completely reshaping Disney’s business model, focusing on direct-to-consumer content streaming while continuing to invest in Disney’s thriving theme parks and other businesses. Prior to becoming CFO, she played a key role in large projects including the development of Shanghai Disneyland and the financial restructuring of Disneyland Paris.
A pivotal moment for McCarthy came in March 2020, when COVID hit. Disney shuttered its parks, cruise ships, theaters, and other live operations. “It was like the faucets of all of our businesses turned off, except for a couple,” she recalls. She and her team swiftly secured $20 billion in the bond markets to ensure the company’s operations were fully funded and free from liquidity issues.
The pandemic could have been a massive crisis for the company, but, as Kevin Mayer, Disney’s former chief strategy officer, notes, “Christine was able to raise the right kind of debt instruments to keep us afloat. She made the right calls at the right time, and that was very, very deft and very difficult to do.”
“The true mettle of management is forged in battle,” observes Markus Hansen, a portfolio manager at Vontobel Asset Management, which owns Disney shares. “Disney’s core businesses came out of COVID stronger in terms of its franchises, sustainability, and profitability. Being the CFO behind this is impressive.”
Work challenges remain a constant. Disney ceased its operations in Russia after the Ukraine invasion. But due to the company’s large global presence, including in China, McCarthy worries about geopolitical tensions and the impact they could have on Disney’s businesses and physical footprint.
Her company has found itself battered by America’s culture wars, especially regarding Florida’s so-called Don’t Say Gay law. “This country is so fractured,” she says. “I’ve never seen it as divided as it is. People have become so angry. How do we as a nation get back to being a highly performing society in which people can have different points of view?”
She has hope. Recalling a recent visit to Disney World, she found great joy in watching happy parkgoers, proving to her that “we can provide people and their families moments and memories of joy, wonder, and magic,” she says.
When not working 12-hour days, McCarthy sheds stress on her Peloton bike. Always motivated by numbers, she likes that it lets her track her miles, minutes, and calories burned. She calls her vacation home in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley her “happy place.” It brings peace and solitude, and the rugged terrain offers opportunities for hiking, riding, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing.
One of her greatest pleasures takes her back to her botany days at Smith. She loves caring for the 200-plus rosebushes at her Pasadena, California, home. Even though her travel schedule often keeps her away, McCarthy has given her gardener standing orders: She wants to prune the roses herself.
“Pruning is healthy,” McCarthy says. “Shed things you no longer need. Cut out unproductive things in your life. Rid yourself of harmful relationships. It will feel bare and exposed at first, but give it time and breathing room, and you will flourish.”
Freelance writer George Spencer is a former executive editor of the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine.
This story appears in the Fall 2022 issue of the Smith Alumnae Quarterly.