Eisner: The Enigma Behind Disney


By Michael Eisner with Tony Schwartz

Random House 512pp $27.95

Few business books have as much going for them as Work in Progress. It's co-authored, after all, by Michael D. Eisner, the legendary CEO of Walt Disney Co. who notes that, in his 14 years at the helm, the company's market value climbed from $2 billion to $75 billion. Helping him craft his story was Tony Schwartz, a well-regarded magazine writer and co-author of Donald Trump's The Art of The Deal.

With such heavyweights, a reader might reasonably expect an important book, one that would reveal the essence of Disney's magic and offer real insight into Eisner's management style. Surely, one presumes, the pages will lay out some of the strategic thinking that has gone into building one of the world's most powerful media companies and will unveil Eisner's plans for navigating the shoals ahead.

Unfortunately, Work in Progress is not that book. It's a smooth, interesting read--and it does offer some titillating sections on Eisner's spats with Jeffrey Katzenberg, former head of Disney's movie studio, and with Michael Ovitz, the company's former president. But unless you're a Hollywood junkie willing to dig for nuggets, you'll find the story all too familiar. And the inevitable one-sidedness of the account leaves the reader dismissing much of what is said as self-serving. Most disappointing is that the book provides little by way of new insight. At the end, one is left wondering: What is it about Michael Eisner that has made him such a successful manager? He remains as much of an enigma as ever.

Eisner says one of the reasons he wrote the book was because he and Frank Wells, the Disney president who died in a helicopter accident in 1994, wanted to share their views of "why we do what we do at Disney and what we stand for." Indeed, much of the book reads as an homage to his former friend and colleague.

But perhaps because Wells is no longer around, the book ends up being more a chronology of Eisner's life. The early chapters describe his family, his courtship of his future wife, Jane (who clearly plays a role as a business adviser), his youthful days climbing the ladder at ABC, and the success he began to have on his own at Paramount Communications Inc.

Eisner also describes in vivid detail how close he came to having a heart attack--doctors say that without bypass surgery, he would have been dead in two days--and the impact that had on his life. In an excerpt from a letter he wrote to novelist Larry McMurtry, who also had a bypass, Eisner is at his most candid, confronting his mortality and describing his newfound lack of fear about death.

The problem is, passages like that are very much the exception. Eisner ultimately reveals little about his personal odyssey. His role as Disney's chief executive, for instance, reads more like a lengthy compendium. There's little insight into how he motivates and challenges people, wrestles with strategic dilemmas, allocates resources, or develops such a strong brand at a time when so many others are stumbling. When he attempts to impart management wisdom, it's disappointing: "To be effective, executives must be organized, keep their desks clean, answer their mail, return their calls, and remain sufficiently calm to put out each day's small fires before they spread." It's only then, he says, that he can do what matters most: "add value to the creative process."

To their credit, the writers don't duck all the tough questions. There's forthright acknowledgement of the financial problems that dogged the company with Euro Disney. The political missteps that occurred in pursuing the Disney's America project in rural Virginia also get ample treatment.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Eisner devotes considerable space to discussing his two nemeses, Katzenberg and Ovitz. Eisner paints the former as insensitive and unseemly; he says Katzenberg demanded Wells's job fewer than 36 hours after the latter's death. Katzenberg was more interested in his own ego and ascension than in the company's needs at that difficult time, Eisner says. He also says Katzenberg never really had a shot at the presidency, because he never earned the board's trust.

As for Ovitz, he clearly wasn't Eisner's first choice. In a search to replace the wisdom and seniority of Wells, he first dangled the presidency in front of then-Senator George J. Mitchell, who turned him down. After he hired Ovitz, Eisner discovered him to be ineffectual and, ultimately, disruptive. The end result: an unfortunate $100 million-or-so severance package.

The book never offers a convincing explanation of why Eisner has trouble hiring and retaining top-flight managers. Nor does it take on the issue of his own lofty compensation, which has been the subject of considerable criticism. As for Disney's recent earnings disappointments, this book offers little guidance. In defending the weak showing of Disney's last few animated films, for instance, Eisner writes: "Our best hope is not to worry much about the competition and to focus instead on retaining our own commitment to excellence and innovation."

In the end, a reader comes away persuaded that Eisner has probably done something special to build Disney into a powerhouse company. But it will fall to another book to explain just what that something is.

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