Will Eisner Survive to Tell This Tale?

Not surprisingly, the Disney CEO's leadership book about lessons learned as a boy at summer camp has been put off for a year

These days, Walt Disney (DIS ) CEO Michael Eisner has his hands full, what with angry shareholders and a hostile bid from cable giant Comcast (CMCSA ). But the beleaguered exec is no stranger to hardship. Back in the '50s, a young Eisner fended off a swarm of insects that forced him to spend a night in the Vermont mountains, lying for hours in a cold river with only his face exposed.

That's just the sort of life-changing, character-building experience that Eisner wanted to share. So 18 months back, he sat down to write an autobiographical account of life at Camp Keewaydin, a swank summer place for well-to-do city kids in the Green Mountain State. The book, Camp, was due to be released this June.


  Alas, life -- like swarming insects -- sometimes delivers some nasty stings. Warner Books -- a division of Time Warner (TWX ) -- has now postponed releasing Eisner's book until sometime next year, says Warner Books Chairman Laurence Kirshbaum. The reason: Eisner "is too busy to promote the book," says Kirshbaum, adding "he couldn't do it justice."

Following the 43% vote of no confidence that shareholders gave Eisner at Disney's Mar. 3 annual meeting, the CEO was stripped of his chairmanship. Since then, says a company spokesman, he has been hustling to make good on his pledge to increase shareholder earnings this year by 30%. The spokesman also says Eisner, as he did with his 1988 book Work in Progress, intends to give his royalties to charity.

Until Eisner's latest swarm of troubles, Warner Books had planned to promote the book as the perfect Father's Day gift, says Kirshbaum, and now the publisher will likely put it out for Father's Day, 2005. Warner had planned a national promotional campaign, with Eisner making stops in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. He had planned -- but hadn't yet recorded -- a six-hour audio version of Camp.


  How exactly does life at a posh summer camp prepare someone to lead one of the world's largest media outfits? Warner in marketing material describes the book as a "touching and insightful portrait of [Eisner's] own coming of age" For Disney's chief, camp "served as a cherished and invaluable starting point for an adult life that would include a career and family life filled with unparalleled success."

Kirshbaum says he talked Eisner into writing the book -- along with HBO producer Aaron Cohen -- after hearing Eisner's 2001 speech "What I Did on My Summer Vacation." In that speech, the Disney chief says "we could never survive the first day" of several-day canoe trips "if we didn't practice teamwork, show initiative, handle adversity, listen well, and, most important, maintain a sense of humor."

He told of taking charge of a lost group on a hiking trip and leading it to safety in a blinding rainstorm. These things "represent keys to success in one's career. Indeed, they are keys to success in life. And you just can't learn them spending your summers playing video games."


  As for the ability to show "show initiative," Eisner hasn't had Keewaydin-like success with broadcaster ABC, whose ratings problems have been a key irritant to Disney shareholders. Sense of humor? Well, no one has ever described Eisner as the life of the party.

What about getting along with others? A tight-fisted manager, Eisner has had celebrated clashes with such creative execs as studio chiefs Jeffrey Katzenberg and Joe Roth, and more recently Steve Jobs and his Pixar Animation Studios (PIXR ), which plans to end its partnership with Disney after 12 years of producing such blockbusters as Finding Nemo and Toy Story.

Still, no one doubts the 62-year-old Eisner's love for Camp Keewaydin, which still operates to this day. The son of a wealthy New York businessman, Eisner went there for six years in the early '50s and spent three as a counselor in the early '60s. He hosted a fund-raiser at New York City's Peninsula Hotel in 2000 that helped the camp bring in more than $2.5 million. Warner's Kirshbaum says he even went to the camp, swam, and canoed with the Disney CEO after he agreed to write the book.


  No doubt Warner and those at Camp Keewaydin are hoping Eisner makes it through his current crises to remain the "media visionary and business titan" that he's called in the book's promotional materials. But by the time Warner starts rolling out the book next year, he could be embroiled in a proxy fight, up against another candidate for his slot on the board. Or he could even be out of a job if shareholder anger persists.

Kirshbaum says he intends to go ahead with publishing and that "the book stands on its own no matter what corporate politics may bring." The trouble is, Warner and Eisner may find it tough to market a feel-good leadership book unless Eisner can stage a near-miraculous return to grace. As he has learned over the past few weeks, you can hide from a swarm of angry insects, but angry shareholders are another story.

By Ronald Grover in Los Angeles

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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