Kin Cheung  /  AP
Michael Eisner, Disney Chairman and CEO of the Walt Disney Company and his wife Jane pose with Disney characters Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse on their arrival at the Hollywood Hotel during a red carpet welcome ceremony at Hong Kong Disneyland earlier this month.
updated 9/30/2005 6:08:31 PM ET 2005-09-30T22:08:31

Michael Eisner's credited with many of the greatest achievements in the history of entertainment. Why is no one applauding?

Pride Rock is the mythical precipice from which the Lion King peers down on his subjects. For Michael Eisner, long-reigning chief of Walt Disney Co. — creator of the feline franchise and many others in his two decades at the top — the time has come to swallow his pride and come down from the mountain.

Nudged to retire before he was ready to leave, Eisner, 63, recently landed in Hong Kong for one of his last official acts. He had his key supporters at his side — his wife of 38 years, one of his three sons, his sister and his best friend from childhood — all there as he capped off 21 years as Disney's chief executive. Two weeks before his resignation became official on Oct. 1, he cut the ribbon and unveiled the company's 11th theme park, Hong Kong Disneyland, opening a gateway to China and vast growth in the years ahead.

"I like the timing of this," he said at ceremonies with representatives of the Hong Kong government, Disney's partner in the $4 billion project. "I made sure my tenure did not end until Hong Kong Disneyland opened and several other things were wrapped up. I'm so pleased with the way it has all come out."

But this ending is bittersweet. The past six years have been tumultuous and difficult with Disney's stock dropping 3.7 percent per year compared with an annual drop of 1.5 percent for the Dow Index. He leaves at least a year earlier than planned, after weathering criticism from the late founder's nephew and being pressured out of the chairman's title by his own handpicked board. Along the way Eisner, a favorite villain for critics of out-of-control compensation, came to be seen as arrogant and imperious, cruising for a comeuppance in this post-Enron era of the diminished corporate chieftain. And now, it seems, his foes have won.

Yet Michael Eisner has ample reason to gloat. As he plots his next move, he looks at what his pal Barry Diller has built at InterActive Corp. and at what Terry Semel is doing at Yahoo and mulls a new entertainment venture. "I'm not going fishing, I'm not playing golf. I'm rejuvenated," he says."I want to get in there before it's too late."

He starts with $750 million in personal net worth (he would need $900 million to make it into The Forbes 400 ). He is one of Disney's two largest individual shareholders (14 million shares) and remains on the board for now. Backers are clamoring to go into business with him, ignoring petty Hollywood quarrels to focus on Eisner's admittedly stellar record. In 21 years his returns rival those of heralded chief executive Jack Welch at General Electric.

Unlike Welch, however, Eisner exits without much applause. He is more reflective lately (see Eisner's Exit Interview). In an exclusive interview he talks of trying to stay "above the noise" of his detractors to focus on the creative details. "When you become the issue, the board should analyze whether they have the right CEO in place," he says. "And if they do, the board should also stay above the noise."

He worries about the ever-shorter tenure of chief executives and the widespread second-guessing they face. "I'm hopeful the country will come back to a position where leaders can lead."

In 1984 he arrived at Disney, a fabled but faltering company that was sleeping beautifully, 18 years after the death of its founder. He had been recruited by Roy Disney — the same man who just spent two years trying to fire him. Eisner used uncanny creative instincts to turn the company around. He vastly expanded theme parks, built up live-action film and revived animation, mining old releases like "Cinderella" for new videocassette riches (and later for DVD sales). In 1996 he added ABC, TV stations and the ESPN cable channel in the $19 billion acquisition of Capital Cities/ABC; today ESPN itself is worth almost twice that.

In 21 years Eisner returned great wealth for shareholders (and himself). Disney's stock price rose at a compounded annual increase of 15 percent (versus 14 percent at GE and 11 percent at Sony). Eisner delivered 27 percent annual growth in earnings per share (GE: 11 percent; Sony: 1 percent — and at Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. net rose 4 percent a year).

© 2012 Forbes.com


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