Sunday, January 22, 2012

Eisner... Savior or Pariah?

In this world we are often presented with people that are polarizing. We look at them as being heroes or villains, good or evil and how their actions affected our lives. One of those debates have raged on over the past ten years over the tenure of Michael Eisner in the Disney Company. While many would be quick to point out his shortcomings, others are just as quick to mention his successes. While not displacing an actual gospel opinion on the man, it is necessary to look at both his positives and his negatives to get a better understanding of what went on throughout his tenure at the House of Mouse.

Disney President Frank Wells and Disney CEO Michael Eisner

To first look at Michael Eisner is to see how it was he came to The Walt Disney Company. Eisner, of Paramount Pictures, along with his friend and colleague Jeffrey Katzenberg arrived in the company in 1984 along with Frank Wells, a man known for his time as President and Vice Chairman of Warner Bros. They were brought in to replace Walt Disney's son-in-law Ron Miller, as it was on Miller and Board President Card Walker's watch that saw both the Disney animation come crashing down, and the near-miss hostile takeover by Saul Steinburg (who wanted to buy Disney and sell it off piece by piece). Those events prompted Roy E. Disney to start his famous "Save Disney" campaign that was preceded by his choice to resign as a member of the Board of Directors. This move ultimately replaced Miller and Walker with Eisner and Wells, who had known Roy since college.

President of Feature Animation Peter Schneider, Animation Head Roy E. Disney, 
and Disney Studio Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg

During the tenure of Wells and Eisner, fans saw both growth in the parks and in animation. There was the opening of Disney/MGM Studios, and the subsequent expansion of that park in the from of Sunset Boulevard. It saw the reinvigorated energy from feature animation, now headed by Peter Schneider. Roy Disney returned to the company he left in 1984 to run the Animation department under Schneider and Katzenberg. The team of Roy and Jeffrey Katzenberg  though tumultuous at best produced some Disney's greatest hits ever. Animation ran off hits like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King in succession. This helped not only retail of merchandise and toys, but also kept the parks running at a high level through the early 90's. Eisner helped change the landscape of the company in less than 10 years. His form of reckless abandon, shoot from the hip attitude led the company while Frank Wells helped keep balance and was always the voice of reason. Unfortunately the happy story seems to end here.

Sadly on April 3, 1994 the world lost Frank Wells, as he tragically died in a helicopter crash in Nevada, returning from a ski trip in the Ruby Mountains. Frank was always known for his love for mountain climbing and skiing almost reached his goal of reaching all seven summits (he had to turn back one day short of the summit of Mount Everest). Wells' death left not only a huge void in the Disney family, but an even greater void in their corporate hierarchy. With the loss of Wells, Disney was without their President, and Michael Eisner was without his sounding board, and his voice of reason. Around this time, Jeffrey Katzeneberg believed that he was next in line to be the Disney President. At this point much debate ensues as some believe that Katzenberg pushed Eisner to promote him, while others believe that Eisner never intended to have Katzenberg work alongside him. Whatever the reason, there was a rivalry between the two that was evident before Wells' death. It came to head afterward.

Eisner eventually pushed Katzenberg to resign, and he went on to create Dreamworks SKG with close friends Steven Spielberg and David Geffen. Katzenberg eventually sued Disney and settled out of court for roughly $250 million dollars. At this point much of Eisner's choices began to become questionable. He hired Creative Artists Agency co-founder and close friend Michael Ovitz. This became one of Eisner's most questionable administrative choices.

Disney CEO Michael Eisner and President Michael Ovitz

The Michael Ovitz experiment ended with Disney owing him almost $160 million dollars in salary and stock options. The year of Ovitz as President not only ruined the relationship he had with Eisner, it also ruined his reputation, as many believed him to be "dumb". Ovitz claims that he was left out of a lot of meetings, and was never explained his role or what was expected of him. His dismissal began to show how Michael Eisner was trying to keep complete control.

Disney CEO Michael Eisner and President Bob Iger

Eventually we are lead to Eisner assuming both posts, but after pressure from many, he named Robert Iger President, and after Roy Disney's second "Save Disney" campaign, Eisner resigned a year before his contract ended. With that Bob Iger assumed his position as President and CEO. 

The questions that are always asked: Was Eisner really that bad? Did he do anything good? Why was there so many issues during his career? Why didn't anyone stop him? The answers though not simple spark many debates. My take is that Eisner is everything and more. He was and is an extremely complex person. He was a good corporate leader during part of his tenure, and he was a poor leader at other times. He did his best work in his first 10 years, and it seemed he lost direction and desired more control during his second 10 years. It can be said that Michael Eisner is like a tale of two people. The first was the intelligent business man who helped take a company on the brink and make it not only relevant, but highly successful. The other person was the man who did not have a real vision, or direction. The second person was power hungry, and wanted everyone to do as he wanted. What was the difference? Frank Wells.

Without Frank Wells' ability to mediate situations, it seems that Michael Eisner's personal issues with his colleagues caused many problems. He was unable to control his feelings toward others. So when the question is asked of Michael Eisner is a savior of Disney or a Pariah, I think the question must be asked: When? From 1984-1994 or 1995-2005. The answer may become much simpler. 

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