Adjust Font Size :

Global Business Executive, Catherine Powell, Who Most Recently Oversaw Disneyland, Walt Disney World And Disneyland Paris, Shares Her Unique Life And Corporate Experiences Along Her Global Leadership Journey 

Business people tend to spend a lot of time on incremental change. It is progress, but achingly slow. Very often the big wins come from seeing things in a totally different light.

When we learned that Catherine Powell had left Disney, we knew that if we could get her to join us at The Global Trade Symposium of The New York Produce Show and Conference that this would be a moment for the produce industry to open up and absorb new ideas and new ways of thinking.

It all worked out and, now, in her first public appearance since leaving Disney, Catherine Powell has agreed to share the leadership arc she has traveled.

We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:

Catherine Powell
Global Business Executive
Most Recently President of Disney Parks,
Western Region

(Walt Disney World, Disneyland Resort, and Disneyland Paris)
Los Angeles, California

Q: We’re elated and honored to have you present at the New York Produce Show. It’s hard to know where to begin with this preview interview. I’m intrigued to learn more about your worldly, visionary leadership journey intersecting through your tenure at Disney, and as an advocate for diversity and women’s empowerment.

A: It’s so nice we connected in time for me to be a part of the Show. I will be doing a mixture of presentation and Q&A on stage with Jim. We can discuss the themes we want to cover and then draw out those that are relevant to the audience.

I can talk a little bit about me and my career and what it was like to work in different cultures, and in a broader sense, how that informs an understanding of who your consumers, or customers are.

Anecdotally, how I had to change my business dialogue in negotiations and of what my expectations were, whether I was working in Europe, or when I went to Australia, how different that was than Paris. Weaving in my story, through the different consumer cultures, which I think is very relevant to produce industry executives, and then weaving in my leadership learning. When you become an expert in one line of business, how then you transfer to general management, and the muscles that I had to build.

On stage, I can take you through my journey, with a call out of pictures of myself in different roles and different countries, and then Jim can ask me questions, as well as the audience on what most interests them, and where they would like me to dig deeper.

Q: I imagine you can provide many insights about the role of food and restaurants and wellness in the Disney universe. But the ideas and vast experiences you bring from outside of produce will surely be as helpful to produce industry executives.   

It sounds like your childhood immersion in different countries, and decidedly magical “Disneyesque” marriage to Hugh Powell, a foreign diplomat, was a foreshadowing of your adventurous career direction. 

A: That’s true. I’ve lived all over the world, I grew up in Hong Kong, and I married someone in the diplomatic service. With Disney, I lived in Australia, then back to Paris and then the U.S. 

My father was in the army, so I grew up in the UK and Germany, but when I was eight, we moved to Hong Kong. I lived in Hong Kong for eight years; at that point my father was not in the army. I went to school there a couple of years, and then went back to boarding school in the U.K. 

But living abroad, living in Hong Kong and spending holiday in Southeast Asia, it marked me considerably in terms of being very aware of different cultures. When I went back to school in the U.K, I had an experience that was very, very English. English boarding school… you can’t get any more British than that.

And then living in this world where I was enveloped in different cultures, different languages, different foods, strong smells permeating in the humid hot summers, things you don’t recognize in the UK, that my friends at my English boarding school couldn’t understand. I learned at a very young age having the opportunity to travel in Southeast Asia, seeing other countries, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, to see the diversity of cultures, people, religions, it was an important influence on me being open minded, and culturally sensitive to different people. I could see this in marked comparison to friends in the UK, worlds that were rich but kind of had parameters around them in a way that mine didn’t.

Q: Any strong memory that left an impact or was it more a blend of experiences?

A: Southeast Asia is so different. I remember the first time getting off the airplane and hitting that wall of humidity engulfed in the smells, and spending time in boats as I love the sea. It’s like going to India; your senses are bombarded with the noises, and the smells and the tastes. Having that incredibly visual and intense sensory perspective.  Ages eight to sixteen are very formative years when you’re going into who you become.

The other part of the impression of living in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia was that I was always curious about other cultures and other countries. I think it’s why I’ve been so willing and ready to live abroad. I’ve spent a huge amount of my life abroad.

Funny enough, my husband was brought up in the foreign service as a child of diplomats. He was born in Finland and lived in the US, Bonn and Brussels. He too is a diplomat, still currently on sabbatical from the foreign office. He also has this curiosity of different cultures, and what does another country have in store. We both share this, and it’s part of why we’ve been willing to make these moves.

Q: It’s wonderful that you found someone that you’re so connected with in that way.

A: Yes, it has been amazing that we found each other, but it has involved compromise. I couldn’t have done what I did without him. But the first half of our marriage, I followed him with his posts, I gave up job opportunities, and then he followed me, and he gave up his job for me.

I think it’s all part of the willingness to travel and live abroad, and that’s something I share with my husband. So, there was probably a subconscious desire to marry someone in the foreign service, knowing that what comes with that is travel. We had our first post in Paris, and then my husband worked in the British embassy, then we lived in Berlin, Germany, and then back to the UK. Then that was the point where I said, OK, I need to focus on my career now because it was constantly changing. And then my husband went to Afghanistan, not in the military but in a civilian capacity. That was quite tough.

When I joined Disney, it was the longest period I spent in one place, for 10 years, from 2004-2014 in London, where I held multiple roles in Disney Media Distribution. That’s during the time when my husband was in Afghanistan. I then picked up and went to Australia [from 2014-2016 as managing director for Disney’s operations and business division in Australia and New Zealand], and then to Paris [from 2016-2018 as president, Disneyland Paris], and then we all moved back to the U.S. to LA [2018-2019 as president, Disney Parks Western Region.]

Q: You’ve had such a rich life..

A: The opportunity to work at Disney has been phenomenal.  Living in Australia was the biggest family adventure. I remember talking with my husband, who at the time was deputy national security advisor, and he was the one who said, if we don’t go now, we will never go. We’ll never have an opportunity again to live in Australia for a family adventure. We should do it. He took a sabbatical, and we moved as a family to Australia. Staying on the theme of family, my 18-year old was happily out the door to Sydney, and the other two were far less certain about moving to Australia. My children went to school there. My eldest went to university there, and my 17-year old still has an Australian accent.

My youngest ended up staying on his own when we all moved back, at a unique kind of boarding school, out in the country side for a year-long program, they had no electronics, no phones, no TV’s or Play Stations, and every weekend they would ski, hike and at the end ran a cross country marathon. 

My three boys move around, but they’re all in the U.S. now. Josh, my eldest, is doing post grad now at USC. My middle child is coming up now working in Orlando in Disney World and my youngest is at high school here in Los Angeles.

Q: Your kids have followed in your footsteps.

A: They’re really global kids, who have grown up, where moving around is the norm. And they’ve seen their parents move for each other and leaving jobs for each other.

Q: Also, the ability to adapt..

A: I started my career in TV production in England at BBC Worldwide, traveling around in different countries, touring Africa in war zones, as far from Disney as you can get.

Moving to Paris involved learning a new language, and a new skill set for media distribution how TV in France worked and what was relevant for consumers. I needed to understand the cultural sensitivities, what people were watching on French TV was very different than on the BBC in the UK, and markedly different than in Australia.

When I went from what I was doing in Paris to BBC catalogues across Europe, it was interesting from a format perspective, to take a quiz show or reality show or scripted drama and convert it and sell an adapted version. For example, we were pitching Fawlty Towers to the Germans, and the reason it was so ironic is because there was a famous scene about not mentioning the war, the idea that we make a comedy series that kind of laughed about the war.

For format sales, you couldn’t just do a template, whether it was a scripted drama or a studio show, you had to adapt it to ensure that it was going to work. Another example, the U.S. version of The Office compared to the UK version.

In terms of adapting, I had my first baby in Paris, my second baby in Germany and my third baby in the UK, along with the challenges medically in three different countries with three different languages.

Q: That could make a good TV Show to distribute in various iterations.

A:  It’s really quite funny to talk about it.

Another interesting thing… when I started to work at Disney in the digital space, the iPad had just launched, Desperate Housewives was one of the first deals, and based in London, we were really trying to break new ground, what content should go through, what were consumers willing to watch on their mobile devices, and prepared to pay for, which countries had higher broadband for mobile penetration, and really building that business at that time.

Q: Keeping up with the fast pace of technology is something the produce industry can relate to

A: Yes, trying to keep the contracts up to date, and future proof them in a world where we had no idea where it was going.

At that time Disney had some of best shows, the best content in the world. People were talking about content being king. And we were in a very strong position with that content. Since then, the way of consuming content has significantly changed, devices have become important. The whole eco system for the consumer is much more complicated. 

We can talk about this, and how can you anticipate the consumers behavior, rather than play catch up; how can you try and get ahead and create an experience, before they realize they wanted it.

Q: Do you have examples of ways you did this?

A: In Paris for example, we had one product, the Park that we marketed. One of the big shifts when I was there was to understand our consumers, and who was not coming. We had so many different consumers out there from different countries, with different expectations, with different behaviors, with different cultural specificities, and different incomes.  How can we talk to them and create product packages and experiences relevant to them, as opposed to just one product at one price available?

There are other things you could do, something when kids are going back to school in France, which is such a big time culturally, a huge retail opportunity to ride that wave.  In Disneyland Anaheim, for customers who celebrate the Chinese New Year, how can you have these immersive experiences that are culturally relevant and talk to the consumer, and market it so it’s also relevant?

What we found in Germany is they like catalogues with a lot of information, while the British might be happy to do things online.

If you want to grow your business, you need to understand and meet your customers’ needs.

On the retail side, you’ve gone from brick and mortar to e-commerce and you have your omnichannel, where it’s about the ease and the convenience, I can order on the website and my mobile and pick up here…

Where Disney is moving to is a truly integrated eco system, where you have this relationship with your guest, your consumer, where you’re with them through their journey, not just when they’re at the park, how to you meet them where they’re thinking, whether they should go to the Park. When they’re there, how do you ensure you’re giving them the most relevant experience to them, and when they leave how to keep that conversation going.

We talked a lot about shifting from a transactional relationship to a relationship arc, having ongoing conversations that are emotional not purely transactional.

Q: Disney and emotions are indelibly tied together for many people…

A: That’s true. Disney is already an incredibly emotional brand, what people feel is extremely strong, and connected with creating memories with their families.

Q: Your reflections and parting words as you left Disney for new adventures are inspiring. I thought it would be nice for you to expound on those beliefs with some examples of what makes a good leader and intuitively a great team.

A: The first is to view your career path as a series of stepping stones rather than a ladder to climb..

When I was at BBC Worldwide, very early on I was a sales executive selling programs to different countries. From there the logical career path, I could become a sales manager, and then a director over time.  My husband had gotten posted to Berlin. And because I was already selling programs to Germany, the BBC said I could take my job to Berlin and do it from there, which meant I could work for the BBC in Germany.  My decision veered from a straightforward move up the sales ladder but allowed me the opportunity to work in a new territory and do another country.

Another example at the BBC, I had the opportunity to work on format and try something different. That was my first experience getting close to content, to learn what a product was all about; it could be a film, it could be a ride, it could be a piece of merchandise. In this case it was a catalogue, how do you make that relevant and adapt to diversity, a format for Russia is very different than for countries in the Middle East. That ability to adjust position and content for the consumer, that triangle has stayed with me and helped me through my career.

In some ways, going to Australia, was a sideways career move, less relevant than what I was doing at the time I left Europe, where I was one of the digital people with a seat at the table. In Australia, I could learn general management skills. I was not head of a vertical business that was very important and at the heart of Disney’s strategic vision going into a digital world. I made a shift from being an expert deeply involved in a small business, to becoming a general manager for eight lines of business in Australia where I was able to be a leader even where I wasn’t an expert.  

Q: You’ve shown a willingness to take career and business risks, not easy for many people..

A: You can’t disrupt or transform without courage, even if there is a risk of failure. Having courage goes hand in hand with seeking change. When it happens to you, embrace it.  It could be personal change, as well as taking a risk in your career, or taking your business in a different direction.  How does one do this. How do you find the way to go? A good starting place is to ask why do we do things this way? It is not about saying this is wrong. What were the policies we were making that have defined our structure? In Australia, for example, there are companies that have doing business with contracts in a certain way, that are no longer relevant. What were the kinds of assumptions that defined these policies, what were the contributing forces, and are they still relevant?

I try not to be negative. This is not saying what you did in the past is wrong, but is it time to change, and as a leader can you accept it. In Australia, I gave permission to the team to walk away from a bad deal. Look, we need to do things differently. Let’s think if there is a better way, to fish in a completely different pond then keep fishing in the same pond and hope you catch a bigger fish.

In a business to business situation, you need to be prepared to hold your ground and walk away and say no. If it’s about consumers, how do you re-train them to see that what you’re offering them is something that still has value. In Australia, we lost this idea that the Disney brand had great value. And in Paris, we were offering discounts. How do you break out of that and not lose your core, premium consumer base?

One thing I said in Australia, we should not just equate value with cheap. Value means you feel good for what you pay for. That’s good value.

Q: There are some parallels here with produce, and value-added products that could lead to some interesting discussions.

A: You want to feel good about any product in the world. Marketing and communication are parts of that, but you have to start with the willingness to do things differently.

Q: If there is a big initial investment before seeing a return, some companies are hesitant to jump in.

A: The bigger the investment, the less appetite for the risk when a business is doing OK. When you have a gun to your head, when you have a sinking ship, it is a lot easier to make radical decisions.

Q: But it’s certainly better not to wait until it gets to that point.

A: Absolutely. You need leaders, unless it’s a technology tried and tested and everyone’s doing it, and it’s a no-brainer, and you’re late to the party. When something is new and hasn’t been seen before, it’s difficult, and you need strong leaders with a belief in their vision and courage.

Q: You also say it’s important to be authentic.

A: Yes, as a leader you want to build trust and loyalty. Your teams have to believe in you, that you’re true to yourself and to them. You need to be open to all ideas. People will recognize authenticity immediately, it makes you vulnerable if you’re authentic. People will see when you struggle with things if you’re more transparent.

For your team, you become much more inspirational. When leaders are on pedestal and inaccessible (although there are many good leaders that are inaccessible), it is much more difficult.

Enjoy and encourage the success of others. Sharing success and building that team spirit is one of the things I learned under an amazing leader in Europe who really pursued integration.

Integration as it related to focusing on the overall success of the European business. That meant that for one line of business to do that, it meant another line of business might have to compromise. An example would be to take a Disney exclusive channel and make it non-exclusive where more people and more families could see it. The people licensing the content suddenly lose their premium, but overall the brand is better recognized, and everyone is going to be better off.

Q: Issues surrounding the value of exclusive licensing agreements with produce varieties is a topic that will be discussed at the Show, but there are some unique circumstances specific to the fresh produce industry here..

A: I had been trained coming from media distribution… let me do my deal, I got 50 percent increase in licensing fees, and that’s amazing. When I was in Europe, we talked about integration and really understanding the value of shared success. An example, whereas before, running media distribution, my teams wanted the best possible deal, and increased margins, but did you talk to your colleagues in consumer products because they might need support on their retail campaign? Did you talk to your colleagues in the studios because this could be connected to their franchises that might want to work with your media partners? It was understanding if you work collaboratively that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

I can share a most personal experience. One of my feedbacks 10 years ago was that I was incredibly enthusiastic about ideas that I wholeheartedly agreed with. I would get behind things, but it was if I really agreed with them or it was my idea. It was really training myself… if initially you may say I don’t agree with that, you’ve got to listen, you have to listen all the way through, and encourage people to come up with ideas. That was something personal to me, but the other reflection goes back to change. If you have a structure that is hierarchal and top down, you don’t encourage people to come up with ideas. If you want your business to grow or stop from failing, you need ideas from people on the ground, who are living and breathing it, and empowering people.

An example: We learned that people on the ground were buried in reams and reams of paperwork taking up their valuable time, and we were able to change that by digitizing with an app. I believe that ideas can and should come from everyone and anyone, and to create a truly diverse environment.

Bob Iger is on the record saying Disney content had to be diverse because Disney consumers are diverse. And to produce truly diverse product, Disney’s work force base also needs to be diverse. But it extends to beyond employees. I believe vendors also have a role to play in being diverse. Diversity and Inclusion seeps into your value chain…. This could be vendors lead by women. It doesn’t necessarily mean the product they are producing is different.

Diversity helps to create the right experiences and products that are relevant to your guest base. Broad diversity is key, to have an employee base that is racially and multi-culturally diverse. Diversity embraces all sorts of communities: women, people of color, LGBT, those who work with accessibility issues and more. All of these diverse groups are part of Disney’s employee and consumer base. We need to talk to all of them in a way where they feel understood and that they belong. 

Q: Is there a trend toward more healthy and nutritious products?

A: With food and beverage, it’s more about having choices and making healthy products available, but it’s not about telling people what they should and should not eat.

Q: That coincides with the idea that when people are on vacation at a Disney Theme Park, it’s about fun and treats..

A: In terms of the future and trends, it’s about understanding where people are with their values and what they care for in life, and catering to people of different nationalities, ages and sexes.. Millennials, for instance, may be very vocal about what the brand represents. It’s absolutely essential as a business to understand your value to consumers and whether you are representing that value in your brand, and also taking the opportunity to re-enforce that value.

Q: Your presentation will stimulate great discussion for attendees to take away with them. To conclude this amazing preview, what would you say were the biggest challenges you faced in your leadership journey so far. And what are the biggest opportunities as you start your new adventures?

A: The biggest challenge was, when making such big decisions and changes in my life that my family was happy. I could never have done any of the moves if my husband or my kids were unhappy. It’s all very well to say be courageous, but if you have a family, they need to come with you. Therefore, that balance of making sure the family is happy is most important for me. 

I often talk about the challenges of that work-life balance, and for me that happiness balance, which comes down to the decisions we make as a family; and compromise and bringing up children in an environment where they see that. Thanks to my husband, I believe that compromise tipped in my favor!

What’s next, I want to try and take the time to find something exciting and meaningful. I’m so appreciative of what I’ve learned and my opportunities at Disney.  


Success is a challenge not easily met.  Catherine’s life makes us think about real issues, such as how important it can be to create situations in which not just your employees, but their families can thrive.  After all, how can you get the intense dedication of your people if they struggle worrying about their families?

This story also makes us all reconsider our own commitment to success. On the superficial level, would you be willing to travel, to go where the opportunities are when they are there? How could you collaborate with your spouse to organize your life so you can take advantage of such opportunities?

It is often a challenge to know how to apply lessons from one venue to another. A big company can take some chances, play roulette, but know it is not Russian roulette.  A smaller family business or entrepreneur on his own may live under the cloud of fear that this mistake may be his last.

The Global Trade Symposium is an intimate event. Catherine Powell will join us for lunch, then give her presentation and then this Pundit will moderate a discussion with her and the attendees.

Catherine Powell is rock star global executive; this opportunity is like a chance to chat with Bon Jovi in an intimate theatre. The opportunity is unlikely to come around again, so you miss it at your peril.

Come join us at The Global Trade Symposium and open up to new ideas and a future filled with potential.

The website for The Global Trade Symposium is here.

The website for The New York Produce Show and Conference is here.

If you need a hotel room, please advise us here.

If you are already registered for the New York show and wish to add The Global Trade Symposium to your registration, please tell us here.

And you can register for the whole event here!

Come and take the steps to build your personal leadership journey. Join us in #CelebratingFresh


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The Latest from Jim Prevor's Perishable Pundit