By his own admission, Michael Eisner isn’t ready to imagine life beyond the wonderful world of Disney.
He has said he’ll soon retire as chief executive. But beyond that, “I’m not thinking about it,” he said in a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times. “I have pushed it out of my mind.”
As Walt Disney Co. shareholders gather today in Minneapolis, reality may start to sink in. The annual meeting, coming one year after a shareholder revolt stripped Eisner of the chairman’s title, will probably be the last time he addresses investors while at Disney’s helm.
That said, it isn’t easy for people who know the 62-year-old Eisner to imagine him severing his links to Burbank-based Disney. He is a man whose attention to -- some would say obsession with -- the world’s most famous entertainment company is legendary. In fact, his identity, both professional and personal, seems to be inextricably linked to the company he has run since 1984.
From hosting Disney’s signature television programs to choosing the drapes for Disney hotel rooms, he has left an indelible imprint. And vice versa -- for years, he’s rarely appeared in public without a Mickey Mouse tie.
“Disney has been his life,” said former Disney TV executive Rich Frank, who is now chairman of The Firm, a talent management and production company. Of Eisner’s impending departure, Frank added: “It has to be unbelievably tough for him.”
Eisner announced last year that he would step down when his contract expired in September 2006. His exit, however, is expected to come much sooner: The Disney board has pledged to name a successor by June.
Bill Mechanic, a producer and former movie chief at 20th Century Fox, predicted Eisner wouldn’t be retired for long. “He’s not a leisure-time guy,” he said. “I don’t think you’ll ever see him go off into the sunset.”
There’s a chance, of course, that Eisner will welcome the chance to spend more time with his wife and three sons while plotting the next chapter of his career. “The last person in this world that I’m ever going to worry about is Michael Eisner,” said retired agent Sue Mengers, who has known him since his early days in the industry. “Michael has to deal all day with idiots, or certain people not up to his level. How many people is he going to miss?”
During a recent trial over Disney’s hiring and firing of former President Michael Ovitz, Tom Murphy, former Capital Cities chairman, suggested that it was the corporation itself that Eisner would miss.
“Let me tell you about Michael Eisner,” he said. “There are only two things that interest him in life -- his children and Disney.”
That seemed to raise the question: Can a man whose self-image and psyche are so intertwined with Disney really cut the cord?
Some are skeptical. Former Walt Disney directors Roy E. Disney and Stanley P. Gold have charged that Eisner is backing Disney President Robert Iger, the lone inside candidate to succeed him, because he believes that, like a puppet master, he can continue to guide the company from behind the scenes.
Eisner’s deep identification with Disney has also prompted widespread speculation that he would like to continue playing a formal role after he steps down as CEO, either as a board member or as a kind of chief creative officer who would advise the new CEO.
In the upcoming book “DisneyWar” by James B. Stewart, Eisner suggests he would serve if asked.
“I didn’t say I didn’t want to be chairman. Zenia has been saying that,” Eisner says, referring to Zenia Mucha, Disney’s corporate spokeswoman.
“I don’t want to be irrelevant,” Eisner continues. “I’m not going to ask the board to be named chairman. I’m not going to beg for it. But the board might come to me. Then I’d have to consider it.”
Mucha said the quotes, although accurate, shouldn’t be interpreted as meaning that Eisner was actively seeking the chairmanship.
Eisner himself said in his interview with The Times that he wasn’t seeking a board seat or the chairman’s job and wasn’t interested in becoming a creative advisor. He preferred, he said, to focus for now on running the company and laying the groundwork for a smooth transition. And he dismissed suggestions that he wanted to use Iger to retain his power.
In any event, Disney Chairman George J. Mitchell has strongly suggested that directors won’t offer Eisner the job of chairman after Mitchell leaves. And some investors, including the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, have opposed allowing Eisner to remain on the board in any capacity after his retirement, warning that he could wield undue influence.
For now, Eisner is working determinedly to secure his legacy, especially in the wake of the bruising shareholder revolt, the trial involving Ovitz’s short tenure as president and now Stewart’s book.
At an investor meeting last week in Orlando, Fla., Eisner delivered a speech that was as much a retrospective of his accomplishments as it was an accounting of Disney’s recent financial gains. He described how under his watch Disney had transformed from a struggling company worth $2 billion in 1984 into what is today nearly a $60-billion global entertainment empire that boasts 10 theme parks, a library of more than 900 movie titles and 32,000 hotel rooms.
“That’s pretty satisfying,” he said after leaving the podium. “We’ve done extremely well.”
Notably, Eisner didn’t directly address the succession question during the two-day meeting. Nor did he discuss when or how he would leave Disney. In the interview, he discounted speculation that he might become a college president, saying he planned to continue to work in the entertainment industry.
“I like what I do -- the nitty- gritty of the creative process,” he said.
In recent months, Eisner said, he has been advising one of his sons, director Breck Eisner, as he completes “Sahara,” a feature film starring Matthew McConaughey that Paramount Pictures will release in April.
The elder Eisner has also made time to put final touches on a book of reminiscences about Camp Keewaydin, which he attended as a child in Vermont. The book, titled “Camp,” is due in bookstores in June.
“I’m not a golfer,” Eisner said when pressed on his thoughts about life after being CEO. “I’m not a sitter at the beach.”
Special correspondent Kim Masters contributed to this report.