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A Business Marvel: CFO Alum on ‘Iron Man’ Franchise

Ken West News Story thumbnail 102x83With the release of “Iron Man 2”, audiences have a second chance to cheer their favorite executive/superhero, Tony Stark. Ken West (BSBA ’80) is the real-life executive who played a big role in bringing the hero back to the silver screen.
 
“We’re definitely excited,” said West, executive vice president and CFO of Marvel Entertainment. “It’s a great picture. It plays very, very well, just like the first. Fans won’t be disappointed.”
 
West was tapped by Marvel in 2002, after a career spanning public accounting to privately-held staffing. Marvel recognized West’s ability to succeed in a demanding environment -- in a company that had emerged from bankruptcy four years before to be teetering once again.
 
Just weeks prior, Marvel had successfully released “Spiderman,” licensed to Sony Pictures. Similar successful licensing deals with Fox had been previously developed for “X-Men” and “Fantastic Four.”  
 
But company leaders recognized the profit potential of producing independently. West and his colleagues developed a unique financing strategy using character rights as collateral.
 
It allowed Marvel to raise the funds necessary while adding no risk to shareholders’ capital. The result: “Iron Man” and “Iron Man 2.” Additional movies in the independent production pipeline include  “The Mighty Thor,” “Captain America” and the “Avengers” – all scheduled for release during 2011 and 2012.
 
A sure sign of success in their strategy? The acquisition of Marvel by Disney, which closed Dec. 31, 2009 -- a move that shocked the industry.
 
Die-hard Marvel fans expressed concern over what a merger with the family-oriented Disney could mean for their beloved characters.
 
“Disney made it very clear to us,” West emphasized, “Just like when they acquired Pixar, Marvel will retain its own identity.”
 
“Marvel pictures will not be Disney-fied,” he added playfully, “But it’s possible that Disney characters may be Marvelized.”
 
West stresses it’s about more than just making ‘comic book’ movies.
 
“The ‘comic book’ movie is not relevant, at least to a consumer,” West explained. “It’s either an entertaining, enticing, storyline and people enjoy it for the way it’s been created and portrayed in the movie, or it’s not. That’s the only relevant thing.”
 
“I think Disney made an excellent acquisition,” he continued, “They not only acquired the 5,000+ characters that we own, but the creative ability of some really talented and creative minds here at Marvel.”
 
In fact, he’s seen Disney, with its 160,000 employees, recently make certain structural changes that start to emulate the efficiencies of Marvel, with its worldwide headcount of under 300.
 
West has remained active and committed to Carnegie Mellon since graduation day -- involved in, among other things, college fairs, applicant interviews, campaigns and founding his own alumni chapter.
 
West, who graduated with three majors, believes his Carnegie Mellon experience helped him reach his potential – and equally benefited his oldest son, who graduated four years ago.  West lives in Fairfield, CT with his wife of 30 years and another son who recently graduated from the University of Connecticut and is scheduled to soon enroll in med school.
 
“CMU is an unbelievable school with great educational offerings, which really prompted me to overload every semester I was there,” said West.

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Mark D. Burd

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Tepper School of Business
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mdburd@andrew.cmu.edu
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