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Quietly Keeping the Spotlight on Disney

Times Staff Writer

Even to those who have worked closely with Robert Iger, the Walt Disney Co. chief executive is something of an enigma -- “easy to like but hard to get to know,” in the words of one former senior officer.

Since ascending to the top a year ago last week, Iger has kept an unusually low profile, a relatively tricky task at an entertainment icon whose leaders have been household names for nearly all of its 83 years.

In his short tenure, Iger has amassed goodwill by patching up feuds he inherited from his predecessor, Michael Eisner.

Yet he has limited his public exposure to carefully selected events, such as being honored last week at UCLA’s Millennium Ball. He has turned down most interview requests, including one for this story, and in June canceled on 24 hours’ notice without explanation a speech to the power elite of Los Angeles that was to have been his local coming-out party.

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Contrast that to Eisner, who was easy to know, harder to like. He penned two autobiographies, hosted Disney television shows and became a fixture on such TV programs as “Charlie Rose.” At the same time, Eisner’s abrasive micromanagement polarized investors and left him unpopular with a large swath of his own company.

“Bob is very modest about his abilities and instincts -- which in fact are very, very good,” said DreamWorks Animation Chief Executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, one of many Disney leaders who departed after disagreements with Eisner. “He is way less engaged in the trappings and public persona than he is in really providing leadership.”

Such reluctance to take center stage is rare among CEOs, especially in Hollywood, where many get caught up in their celebrity. And Iger has a lot to crow about, having overseen a dramatic turnaround in the company’s financial and stock performance. But Iger is determined to avoid Eisner’s fate as a big target for company critics.

“He’s just smartly decided that people should focus on the company and not on him,” said Rich Frank, a former top Disney executive and now co-chairman of the Firm, a management company.

As Disney’s president, Iger was Eisner’s second in command for five years and had the best seat in the house to view the downside of being a CEO whose name is synonymous with the company’s.

Eisner’s persona served Disney well after he took over a troubled operation in 1984, putting a public face on the company and sending a message that he was the fun-loving leader of a creative team that would restore the kingdom’s magic.

But as investor discontent grew toward the end of Eisner’s reign, he became a lightning rod. In 2004, Eisner endured a humiliating 45% no-confidence vote from shareholders -- an unprecedented rebuke in U.S. corporate history -- and was stripped of the chairmanship by directors. Instead of enjoying a victory lap of plaudits, Eisner hastened his departure.

According to people who have discussed the issue with directors, they are thrilled that Iger has mended fences while keeping his head down.

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He can still turn on the charm when it counts. At a Disneyland premiere of “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest,” Iger moved like a seasoned politician, greeting a new acquaintance with the same warmth as he did Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. A quintessential company man, Iger has the public poise and good looks of a TV weatherman, which he once was.

“Bob is a nice guy,” said Comcast Corp. Chief Operating Officer Stephen Burke, who was president of ABC Broadcasting under Iger. “There’s an old business bromide that if you’re interviewing a guy for a job and he treats the waitress poorly, you shouldn’t hire him. Bob would never treat a waitress poorly.”

After taking over, Iger also sent a message to the company’s antagonists that he can meet them more than halfway.

Iger quickly restored relations with Walt Disney’s nephew Roy E. Disney and chief lieutenant Stanley Gold, former board members who led the drive to force out Eisner. The two sued Disney’s remaining directors, alleging they rubber-stamped Eisner’s choice of Iger as successor.

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Iger visited Gold’s Burbank office and asked the two men to “please give me a chance,” according to people briefed on the meeting. He explained his strategic plan, and they dropped their lawsuit.

That same well-regulated ego allowed Iger to mend ties with Pixar Animation Studios Inc. Chief Executive Steve Jobs, who had had a bitter falling out with Eisner and was threatening to pick a non-Disney partner for distributing his animated movies. Iger forged the $7.4-billion stock acquisition of Pixar, salvaging Disney’s animation business while inviting the charismatic but controlling Jobs into the Disney fold as a director and its largest shareholder.

Some board members believe Iger allowed Jobs to out-negotiate him. Jobs told Iger he saw no advantage to having Pixar owned by Disney when, in fact, the benefits of being tied to Hollywood’s premier family entertainment name were obvious, according to people involved in the talks.

Although the high price raised eyebrows, “the Pixar deal was the thing that had to be done, so he did it,” said ESPN Chairman Emeritus Herb Granath, a longtime friend of Iger’s. “He sublimates his ego.”

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On a typical day Iger is awake before dawn to exercise, arriving at the Disney lot by 7 a.m. He has kept Eisner’s Monday staff lunches but added more structure to the agenda.

Iger has told associates he spends as much as 60% of his time plotting Disney’s technology strategy. He doesn’t claim to have it all figured out yet, but he has flipped Disney’s hidebound image by putting the first network TV shows and movies on Apple Computer Inc.'s iTunes.

Inside Disney’s headquarters building, Iger has endeared himself to lower-level executives. One of his first acts was to dismantle Eisner’s hated Strategic Planning Group, which many considered a deathtrap for innovative ideas.

“It was a completely counterproductive culture,” said Andy Mooney, head of Disney’s consumer product division.

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The increased freedom has revived morale, according to dozens of current and former employees.

As CEO, Iger doesn’t see himself as a super-programmer, the man responsible for picking every studio movie, ABC series and ESPN ballgame. In sharp distinction from Eisner, who picked the color of the curtains at Disney hotels, Iger has stood back and let the people under him work.

“The show-biz syndrome has been the downfall of many executives who essentially are businessmen and get into the creative side because they can,” Granath said.

Disney’s small number of problems under Iger -- an ESPN-branded cellular phone scrapped last month at a cost of $30 million to the company, lower-than-expected attendance at the new Hong Kong Disney park and a controversial 9/11 docudrama from ABC -- haven’t set off any internal alarms.

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“I’d like to think people are more comfortable taking on intelligent risks knowing that even if they don’t succeed, they’ll at least be applauded for taking the initiative,” Chief Financial Officer Tom Staggs said.

Which is not to say that Iger has avoided decisions that upset the staff. He approved a major reduction in the number of movies Disney produces each year and the simultaneous elimination of hundreds of jobs.

But even that can be ascribed to Iger’s deference to something bigger than himself -- the powerhouse Disney brand.

Many Hollywood chiefs have found it impossible to say no to making more movies. Iger saw that Disney-branded family movies were a far more dependable source of profit than those aimed at adults -- especially when they yield toys and other merchandise. After building a massive production and distribution system, Iger told investors last month, Disney executives had been churning out more movies, including many aimed at grown-ups, to justify the capital expense.

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Iger’s executives also credit him with dismantling operating silos that divided the company and hindered cooperation.

One example is in its international business, which Iger has cited as a top priority. No other country is as crucial as China, and Iger has redoubled efforts to get that government’s approval for a second theme park there, in Shanghai.

Disney’s chief of international strategy, Andy Bird, convinced Iger that the Broadway hit “The Lion King” should favorably impress Chinese officials -- if Disney’s live entertainment unit could get it to Shanghai and adapt the show culturally.

“That was literally one conversation,” Bird said, and Iger made it happen.

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Publicly, Iger’s chosen forum to explain what he’s doing has been investors and Wall Street analysts -- a decidedly appreciative audience. After losing 45% of their peak value from April 2000, Disney shares have defied broad concerns about the entertainment industry and regained 30% since Iger’s ascension.

In the first three quarters under Iger, net income rose more than 18%, to $2.6 billion. The “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequel has grossed more than $1 billion. The ABC television network, which had been lagging, surged ahead of rivals in the ratings with “Desperate Housewives,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Lost.” Disney’s theme parks also posted record attendance this year, driven by the promotion of their 50th anniversary.

To the extent that Iger’s humility has bred success, he may have Eisner to thank for teaching him to hold his tongue. Indeed, when Eisner interviewed Iger on his CNBC cable talk show this year, he couldn’t help pointing out their contrasting styles.

Needling Iger for stoically enduring so much criticism before the board picked him as CEO, Eisner said he would never have done the same.

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Then again, Eisner added, he’s no longer there.

joseph.menn@latimes.com


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