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It Was Eisner’s Show to the End

Times Staff Writer

During just the last year, Michael Eisner has weathered several storms, any one of which could have sunk a less seasoned, or stubborn, executive.

In March 2004, after Walt Disney Co. shareholders blistered him with a 45% vote of no confidence, he was removed as chairman of the board. 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 bestselling book released a few weeks ago portrayed him as paranoid and obsessed with his enemies.

On Sunday the resilient chief executive who has run Disney for nearly 21 years appeared to have the last laugh. With the naming of Disney President Robert Iger as his successor, Eisner demonstrated once again the enormous control he wields over the Magic Kingdom.

By picking Iger, an Eisner protege and the lone inside candidate, the Disney board effectively endorsed the status quo. In contrast to an outsider, who might have felt pressure to transform the Burbank-based entertainment corporation, Iger will no doubt endorse continuity.

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“He’s got his mouse ears attached on solidly,” said Gigi Johnson, executive director of the entertainment and media management institute at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. “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, which under his watch grew from a $1.5-billion-a-year company to a $30-billion one. But then he’s well known for his attention to detail -- including such minutiae as the color of the curtains in Disney’s hotel rooms, which he personally selected.

What was striking Sunday wasn’t just that Eisner got his way. It was that the role he insisted on playing in the search seemed to have assured his success.

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According to several sources, allowing Eisner to be part of the interviewing process made it hard for Disney to lure strong contenders.

There were grumblings that some outside candidates would agree to be interviewed only if Eisner weren’t present, a detail that sources confirmed Sunday.

But Eisner didn’t back down. When EBay Inc. Chief Executive Meg Whitman showed up in Los Angeles this month, he sat in during the entire three-hour interview, according to a source familiar with the matter.

Eisner is nothing if not battle tested. For years he endured criticism that he failed to delegate and drove away young leaders who might succeed him.

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In the remarkable shareholder revolt, more than 4 out of 10 shares were cast against him. At the recent Ovitz trial in Delaware, Eisner admitted on the stand that he had lied in an interview with talk-show host Larry King, saying that there were no problems between Ovitz and him when in fact Ovitz was about to be fired. And in the new book “DisneyWar,” James B. 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 or in passing on information about a competitor’s troubled movie.

And he came to view the search for his successor as a game -- the kind of fight to the finish that has always energized him.

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Even as two of his bitter enemies, dissident shareholders Stanley P. Gold and Roy E. 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 handpicked choice but also the only internal candidate who would be considered.

On Sunday, Gold and Disney complained that directors had “handed Bob Iger the job by default.”

As for Eisner, he could hardly hide his glee. In a letter to directors, he described Disney as a place of “calm waters” and “bright skies” and 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.”

Times staff writer Sallie Hofmeister contributed to this report.

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