During just 12 months, Michael Eisner has weathered several storms, any one of which could have sunk a less seasoned or stubborn executive...
HOLLYWOOD — During just 12 months, Michael Eisner has weathered several storms, any one of which could have sunk a less seasoned or stubborn executive.
Last March, after Walt Disney Co. shareholders blistered him with a 45 percent vote of no confidence, he was removed as chairman. Late last year, his judgment was repeatedly questioned during testimony at a trial about his ill-fated hiring of his former friend Michael Ovitz. A few weeks ago, a best-selling book portrayed him as paranoid and obsessed with his enemies.
Yesterday, the resilient chief executive who has run Disney for nearly 21 years appeared to have the last laugh.
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With the naming of Disney President Robert Iger as his successor, Eisner demonstrated once again the enormous control he wields over the Disney empire.
By picking Iger, an Eisner protégé and the lone inside candidate, the board effectively endorsed the status quo. Iger will no doubt back continuity.
“He’s got his mouse ears attached on solidly,” said Gigi Johnson, executive director of the entertainment and media-management institute at the University of California, Los Angeles. “It will be hard for him to make changes.”
Richard Greenfield, an analyst at Fulcrum Global Partners, agreed, saying: “This means there will be no extreme makeover at Disney.”
The board’s decision revealed Eisner’s genius for managing and protecting his legacy at Disney. But, then, he’s well-known for his meticulous attention to detail — including the color of curtains in Disney’s hotel rooms, which he personally selected.
What was striking yesterday wasn’t just that Eisner got his way. It was that the role he insisted on in the search seemed to have assured his success.
According to several sources, Eisner’s demand that he be part of the interviewing process made it hard for Disney to lure strong contenders.
There was grumbling that some outside candidates, such as News Corp. President Peter Chernin, would agree to be interviewed only if Eisner wasn’t present, a detail that sources confirmed yesterday.
But Eisner didn’t back down. When eBay CEO Meg Whitman showed up in Los Angeles earlier this month, he sat in during the entire three-hour interview, according to a source familiar with the matter.
For years, Eisner has endured criticism that he micromanages, fails to delegate and drives away young leaders who might succeed him. He is nothing if not battle-tested.
In the remarkable shareholder revolt, more than four out of 10 shares were cast against him. At the Ovitz trial, Eisner admitted on the stand that he had lied in an interview with television personality Larry King, saying that there were no problems between him and Ovitz when in fact Ovitz was about to be fired.
And in the new book “DisneyWar,” author James Stewart paints Eisner as a petty man who second-guesses subordinates.
All the challenges seemed only to fuel Eisner’s desire to prove his critics wrong.
He loves to win: For years, he has delighted in telling reporters when Disney’s stock outperforms a rival’s and in passing on information about a competitor’s troubled movie.
And he came to view the search for his successor as a game to be won, the kind of fight to the finish that has always energized him.
Even as his bitter enemies, former dissident shareholders Stanley Gold and Roy Disney, agitated for directors to look outside the company, Eisner was outmaneuvering them. Early on, he made it clear that Iger was not only his choice but the only internal candidate who would be considered.
Gold and Disney yesterday said directors had “handed Bob Iger the job by default.”
As for Eisner, he could hardly hide his glee. In a letter to directors, he compared his feelings to those enjoyed at “the end of a great day at Disneyland as one pulls into the station after the final E-ticket ride.”