Four Key Disney Executives Leave
Jun. 05, 1998
BURBANK, Calif. (AP) _ By all appearances, The Walt Disney Co. is riding high, with record profits, strong stock performance and an ambitious list of new ventures likely to boost earnings even higher.
So why is Disney chairman Michael Eisner losing so many of his top lieutenants?
In recent weeks, four key executives _ mostly aggressive, up-and-coming managers in their mid-to-late 30s _ have given notice.
The departures have resurrected questions about Eisner's ability to share power and cultivate a successor to run the $11 billion-a-year company. Its holdings include theme parks, movie studios, the ABC television network, ESPN and professional sports teams.
Some analysts said, however, that the departures probably do not reflect dissatisfaction with Eisner or Disney. Instead, Disney's ability to groom top managers makes the executive suite a prime target for headhunters.
``People try to paint Eisner as a dictatorial autocrat, and I think to myself that's true to some extent, but he also is a brilliant executive,'' said Arthur Rockwell, an entertainment industry analyst with Drake Capital Securities.
``And when you look around at the other players in the industry, I'm not sure there's much difference ...,'' he said. ``They're all basically calling the shots from the top.''
The latest exodus began in May when chief financial officer Richard Nanula left. He was lured away to become chief executive of the hotel and gambling company Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide Inc.
Geraldine Laybourne, head of Disney cable TV programming, left to start her own production company, which Disney will back financially.
Chief strategic officer Lawrence Murphy resigned after Disney named Thomas Staggs, a senior vice president for strategic planning, to Nanula's job. He cited personal reasons, including his upcoming marriage and the departure of close friend Nanula.
Steve Burke, in charge of ABC television and radio affiliates, was the most recent to leave. He announced Tuesday he would become president of Philadelphia-based cable television company Comcast Corp.
Each has said there was no dissatisfaction with Disney.
``If Michael Eisner is such a bad guy, how come we stayed there 12 or 13 years?'' asked Nanula in an interview.
``You don't get to be where Michael Eisner and Disney are without a strong chairman making decisions and running a company,'' he said. ``None of us want anything other than that.''
The turnover does little to clear the picture of who might succeed Eisner.
Disney likely could reclaim either Nanula or Burke. Or it could tap other former executives who have gone on to lead companies, such as Hilton Hotels chairman Steven Bollenbach or Northwest Airlines co-chairman Gary Wilson. Inside the company, there's Robert Iger, head of ABC and a personal friend of Eisner.
Meanwhile, the departures shouldn't create a problem for Disney and its thousands of employees around the globe, analysts say.
Disney's reputation for grooming top management, which has made the company a fertile recruiting ground, also has left Disney with a talented field of replacements, said Jill Krutick, an analyst at the investment firm Salomon Smith Barney.
``They have always been a magnet in the industry,'' she said. ``Our feeling is the company has a deep bench. A company the size of Disney is significantly larger than a few individuals.''
Not all exits from Disney have been graceful.
Jeffrey Katzenberg ran Disney's studio operations until 1994, when he resigned and sued Disney for $250 million after Eisner declined to name him successor to company president Frank Wells. Wells, for years the behind-the-scenes implementer of Eisner's creative vision, died in a helicopter crash during a Nevada skiing vacation.
The Katzenberg blowup was surpassed in 1996 when Michael Ovitz quit after one year as Disney's president in an apparent power struggle with Eisner. A huge severance package enabled the former Hollywood superagent to walk away with stock options now valued at more than $100 million _ a sum that still riles Disney stockholders.
``I see the debacle with Ovitz as ... a failure of judgment and Michael Eisner has got to take a hit for it,'' said Graef Crystal, a consultant on executive compensation who helped draft Eisner's contract. ``He's the one who saw Michael Ovitz as being the great hero.''
Many executives don't leave, noted John Dreyer, a Disney vice president and its chief spokesman. Judson Green, chairman of Walt Disney Attractions, has been with the company for nearly 20 years, and Disneyland chief Paul Presser for 16.
Still, the main worry is there is no one of Wells' skill or experience to mind the store in the absence of Eisner, who underwent quadruple bypass surgery a few years ago, Rockwell said.
``The only significant problem is if Michael Eisner becomes incapacitated, and there is no Frank Wells around to handle things,'' he said.