Disney CEO is my new BFF...
CEO Robert Iger has kept a low profile while mending fences broken under his predecessor and forging key deals with Pixar and iTunes.
By Joseph Menn, 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.
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.
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."
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