Stephen B. Burke recalls his knees knocking when he approached Walt Disney Co. (DIS ) Chairman Michael D. Eisner and Disney Chief Financial Officer Gary L. Wilson in 1986. Only a few months on the job, Burke was making a pitch to start the company's first Disney Store. "Sure," he later recalled Eisner telling him. "Just don't screw it up."
He didn't. For more than five years, Burke, now 45, was a Disney wunderkind, creating a hugely profitable retail chain. His next act was helping restructure Disney's faltering efforts at Disneyland Paris. In a 13-year Disney career, he eventually rose to president of ABC Inc. (DIS ). But Burke and Eisner clashed in 1998, and when a Comcast Cable Communications Inc. (CMCSK ) headhunter called and offered him the No. 2 spot, Burke bolted. That, Eisner's critics contend, was a dark day for Disney. "He was the driving force behind the stores when they were strong," says former Disney board member Stanley P. Gold. "Steve is the kind of guy that Disney should have been populating itself with, not running off."
Since Burke's exit, Disney watchers have counted the days till his return. "It seemed like his heritage," says Viacom International Inc. (VIA ) ex-President Frank J. Biondi Jr. Essentially, it was: Burke's father, Dan, helped create ABC parent company Capital Cities/ABC with fellow Harvard University grad Thomas Murphy in 1961. The pair left in 1996 after CapCities was acquired by Disney in 1996 for $19 billion.
Now, Burke's homecoming may be at hand. The still boyish-looking exec, who once ran the Los Angeles Marathon with his son in a baby carriage, will likely be tapped to shape up Disney's sprawling empire if Comcast's hostile bid succeeds. He has the right track record. At Comcast, where he is an executive vice-president and president of its cable operations, Burke got high marks for quickly integrating AT&T's (T ) lackluster cable operations after the companies' 2001 merger. Today, Comcast is considered among the best-run cable operators, with a fast-growing number of higher-paying digital subscribers. At Disney, he'll have a tough job -- the least of which is turning around ABC, the former family jewel now in need of major polishing.
By Ronald Grover in Orlando