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Kenversations(tm)
Page 1 of 6

by Ken Pellman (archives)
December 11, 2003
In light of the Roy Disney / Michael Eisner happenings Ken gives a brief history of the Eisner-Era Disney.

Kenversations(tm) - A Brief History of Eisner-Era Disney

I remember getting home from the Disneyland Resort and quickly logging on before heading out the door for dinner.

The headline screamed at me, informing me that Roy Edward Disney had resigned from The Walt Disney Company and had called on the CEO and Chairman of the Board, Michael D. Eisner, to resign. To someone like me, this was big news - very big.

Given the short attention spans people have today and the media saturation of stories like this, you may have already grown sick of the whole Roy Disney versus Michael Eisner thing.

I hope you aren't too tired of it all to take a look back with me. When you put it in context, it's an exciting, dramatic time. This is the stuff that books are written about and movies made about. This is a corporate drama, evoking feelings of nostalgia and issues of personal legacies and reputations.

Roy's resignation letter and subsequent comments have presented a message that has resonated with many Disney employees and enthusiasts who have expressed concerns about the direction of the Company. They'd often been told that they had a "sky is falling" attitude, that they didn't understand what was really going with Disney. The, in front of the whole world, Roy Oliver Disney's son, someone from the Board of Directors, no less, voices the same concerns they've expressed.

You may not agree that the concerns are valid. Even so, for those who have expressed such concerns, it was a moment of validation of what they have perceived to be the truth.

The edition of Kenversations is going to look at things largely from their perspective to explain the phrases in Roy's words.

"Dear Michael:

It is with deep sadness and regret that I send you this letter of resignation from the Walt Disney Company, both as Chairman of the Feature Animation Division and as Vice Chairman of the Board of Directors. You well know that you and I have had serious differences of opinion  about the direction and style of management in the Company in recent years..."

A Farm Boy's Legacy
By naming his company after himself, Walt Disney was building a personal reputation. However, long after his death, whether he intended it or not, being tied to the Disney name still has a profound affect on the international corporation he and his brother founded, which has grown to be one of the largest media and entertainment conglomerates in history.

There can be no doubt that the loss of Frank Wells has created a fundamental change in the effectiveness of corporate management. Make no mistake, Michael Eisner is very accomplished and has a lot going for him. The same could be said for Michael Jordon, but he still needed the rest of the Chicago Bulls to win championship after championship. There is no way the company now known as The Walt Disney Company would have been around for more than a few years without BOTH Walt Disney and Roy Disney - the loss of either one would have killed the company in its childhood. Indeed, even though the brothers left behind an organization of people who had worked with them for decades, their deaths set the company on a course that was like a long illness that almost killed it, because much of the company was like a glove that was animated by the hand of a visionary - Walt.

To the Rescue
In 1984, Warner Brothers veteran Frank Wells, Roy Edward Disney (Roy Oliver Disney's son), and Stanley Gold (Roy Edward's business partner/adviser) were among the key players in saving the company from corporate raiders who wanted to buy up the stock and sell off bits of the company for a tidy profit - the theme parks going to one buyer, the studio lot going to another, the vault of films to another, etc. Backed by the Bass Brothers of Texas, the group brought Michael Eisner over from Paramount, fended off the raiders, and had a plan to revive the company and make lots of money. Michael Eisner asked to be Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer, and Frank Wells, wanting to avoid contention at that critical time, agreed without argument to taking the second spot of President and Chief Operating Officer.

Many people viewed Eisner and Wells through the lens of Walt and Roy, assuming that Michael was the creative one and Wells was the financially-minded one. In reality, while Eisner was indeed someone who had risen through the entertainment industry via the creative/administrative route (and not the purely financial side) and became the face of the company on TV, Frank Wells was a creative, adventurous man who had taken time away from Hollywood to do some impressive mountain climbing.

There was some similarity to Walt and Roy as Michael and Frank were an effective team. Frank, being one of the key people to bring in Michael, had the kind of working relationship with Michael to tell him when one of his ideas or plans wouldn't work and why. Michael would pull several ideas out of his hat, and Frank could pick the ones that were worthwhile and help make them happen.

Michael was able to bring over fellow Paramount mover & shaker Jeffrey Katzenberg, which would prove to be one of the best -yet most painful- moves of his time at Disney. Jeffrey was an ambitious public personality unto his own who saw the studio through a time of renewal and growth, making many key deals with talent.

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