Michael Eisner: The Lion King in winter

Five years after his stormy exit from Disney, Michael Eisner has written a book about great partnerships. It's not ironic.

Michael Eisner has had some infamously disastrous relationships. During his 21 years as CEO of the Walt Disney Co., he weathered a legal feud with Jeffrey Katzenberg in the mid-’90s after the latter was passed over for promotion, then a nasty breakup with his hand-picked president, Michael Ovitz, that cost Disney shareholders tens of millions. By the end of his tenure, Walt Disney’s nephew Roy Disney was calling for Eisner’s head.

But during his first decade at the company, Eisner transformed a flailing entertainment outfit into a magical multibillion-dollar kingdom with Ovitz’s predecessor, Frank Wells, at his side. Prior to Disney, he also had a great run partnering with Barry Diller at ABC and Paramount. Taking time off from managing Tornante, his privately held media investment company, Eisner recently penned Working Together: Why Great Partnerships Succeed, a business book outlining the success formula developed by legendary partners — ranging from investment giants Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger to movie makers Brian Grazer and Ron Howard to baseball’s Joe Torre and Don Zimmer. Eisner spoke with Canadian Business senior writer Thomas Watson about relationships, risk-taking and why Paris is not the place to launch a writing career.

Canadian Business: You argue that it’s better to run businesses with partnerships than CEO dictatorships or star leaders. But when you were approached to run Disney, you declined to be a co-CEO with Frank. You still don’t believe in sharing the corner office. So how is your ideal partner different from a second-in-command?

Michael Eisner: Well, it depends how you work with your partner or your second-in-command. If you look at Warren Buffett and [vice-chairman of Berkshire Hathaway] Charlie Munger, Warren is the leader, but he doesn’t see it that way necessarily. He knows — and the shareholders know — that the buck stops in a particular office, but they act like partners. For the organization, to the outside world, you have to have a specific decisionmaker, but that doesn’t mean that in practicality there’s not a major influence — if not an equal influence — in a partner.

CB: So we’re talking about a relationship in which there are no secrets or siloed decisions, even though only one person may be in the spotlight.

ME: Right. And no envy and jealousy between the two partners.

CB: Do you think partnering with someone like Charlie Munger would have made Andrew Carnegie or Rupert Murdoch or Jack Welch more successful or happier in their careers?

ME: I don’t know the answer to that. Many of the leaders you mention have had different partners at different times. Based on the research I did, I would say that if they truly did not have a partner, it’s likely they would have been happier had they had one. But everybody’s not the same. There are very happy single people who have no relationships.

CB: You don’t see partnerships as one person reining in another’s ideas or enthusiasm. In fact, your book describes a when-in-doubt-gofor- it partnership with Frank Wells.

ME:No, no, that’s not true. I think a major part of a partnership is a reining in. At some point, it may be A reining in B, and at another point B reins in A, but you always have a check and balance on ideas that may be too extreme or too conservative. You certainly have it on ethics and protecting yourself against falling for the advice of people who don’t share your interest in keeping the ship on a moral compass. Very important: it’s more likely that you’ll have an ethical organization when you have a partnership than when you don’t.

CB: You’ve said that people wrongly assume Frank was the more reserved person, or less willing to go for creative ideas. What was your biggest joint Hail Mary idea?

ME:Well, the whole Disney Co. was a Hail Mary. Start there. We came in when corporate raiders were trying to tear it apart. The company had atrophied. But on a daily basis, we were enthusiastic. If we failed, we were failing together; if we succeeded, we succeeded together. It was more fun having somebody to share the ups and downs with. And Frank was a risk-taker. He climbed six of the seven highest mountains and attempted to scale Everest several times.

CB: Is there one project that you looked at together and said, ‘Let’s go for it,’ even though you really were not sure?

ME: We never were not sure, but we weren’t always right. We were confidently wrong on occasion. The building of [theme park] Euro Disney was a challenge because we built it in a boom time and it opened in a recession. It was very expensive to build a castle near many European castles — it’s like bringing coal to Newcastle. It was a challenge culturally. However, in the end, it’s the biggest attraction in Europe.

CB: How different do you think your last years at the company would have been had Frank not died in the helicopter crash?

ME: It wasn’t as much fun for me. I had other partners, like [current Disney CEO] Bob Iger, who’s great, and of course I still have my wife. But we did so well together for that first decade in bringing a patient off life support and sending him right to the marathon, so it was a particularly heady time.

CB: After Frank, you never found the same synergy with Jeffrey Katzenberg or Michael Ovitz. Do you think it’s easier to find a partner when the journey is beginning than trying to replace one?

ME: I had an excellent partnership with Katzenberg for maybe 15 years both at Paramount and at Disney. There was a point when it was time for him to make his own mark — which he has done — and the board did not feel that he was the right person to replace Frank. But we did very well together. I had another partnership which was doomed from the first day.

CB: On that note, after taking Disney from a US$3-billon to US$60-billion enterprise, did the heat you took over Ovitz surprise you? And you were dealing with serious heart-related issues at the time.

ME: Well, my heart-related issues were pretty much over by then. In the 15 months or so that Michael was president of Disney, there were — I’m making this number up — 180 presidents or CEOs in America that left within less than a year, and all that got reported on page 92 of The Wall Street Journal. But when you’re in the media business and you have Disney, and it’s had this miraculous … It’s like batting .600 for 10 years and then doing something not consistent with your past. So the interest in this relationship was very intense. Plus, he was very successful, was on the cover of magazines as the most important man in Hollywood. So when it didn’t work — no different than hundreds of other partnerships that didn’t work — it got more ink. And we moved on very quickly.

CB: Did your parents really make you read books for two hours for every hour of TV you watched?

ME:They did. But I was pretty clever. It wasn’t like I always obeyed my parents. They would be shocked to hear that!

CB: Why did you leave Paris where you went to write plays?

ME: All I saw was Americans with their American Express travellers cheques stuffed under their blankets, all pretending they were poor. It just looked like an unattractive group to me. It seemed frivolous, to me. My image of myself sitting in a Left Bank coldwater flat writing was more romantic when I was in Granville, Ohio.

CB: Did you think you would be a playwright?

ME: Yeah, I did. I wrote some plays in college to entice a girl that was in the theatre department to go out with me.

CB: What was your play about?

ME: Oh, my god. It’s called To Stop a River. It was about … what the hell was it about? It was about a girl from, I think, Newark, Ohio, who came to the big city. I’d have to go back and read it. I could tell you other plays I wrote. But it was produced. It did pretty well.

CB: You’re now an entrepreneur after running a major corporation. How has your life changed?

ME: Well, I was 40 years in public companies, and about 30 of those as president or chairman, so change is good. I liked writing this book with Aaron Cohen. I like doing things on my own schedule. I’m having a very good time. I have a social game that just went out last week called Fame Town, which is one of those social games that run on Facebook. I find that interesting. And I’m looking for another book to write.

CB: Do you have any ideas? ME Bad ones. I gotta keep looking. CB Typical Saturday night for Michael Eisner?

ME: There is no typical Saturday night. Every Saturday night I could be doing something different someplace else in the world.

CB: Do you think America will ever be replaced as the world’s entertainment centre?

ME: In the foreseeable future, the melting pot and the democratic system that America has, and on top of that reasonable weather, will mean that the U.S. remains one of the great centres for movies and television and all things creative.

CB: Back to the Future screenwriter Bob Gale has been out there despairing the lack of originality he sees in current movies. Do you share his concern?

ME: I don’t know. Was Back to the Future so original?

CB: What’s your favourite movie ever made — not by you.

ME: The Blue Veil. I’m leaving you on that, so you gotta do a lot of research.