The Walt Disney Co. named Sanford Litvack vice chairman of its board of directors Thursday in what industry insiders called a gesture of gratitude for his service to the company and especially for his role as top adviser to Disney chief Michael Eisner.
“Sandy has been my key adviser over the past five years and has been invaluable in providing me with guidance and counsel,” Eisner said in a statement. “He has been instrumental in helping me to organize the company. … Going forward, he will continue to work with me to monitor and stimulate Disney’s performance.”
The announcement created a momentary stir as a recent downturn in Disney’s profits and stock price served to highlight that Eisner has no designated successor, and fueled speculation as to who may fill that role.
Since the 1994 death of Frank Wells, the exec closest to Eisner, Litvack, 63, has been handling many of Wells’ responsibilities — save for a brief and rocky period when Michael Ovitz served as Eisner’s second-in-command.
Litvack’s expanded title means he will take on an even more visible role as Eisner’s counselor and channel to the outside. But it doesn’t make him a successor to Eisner, who is only 57.
“It is not a designation of an heir. We have not designated an heir,” a Disney spokesman said. Announcing a successor too early tends to discourage other executives, who may leave the company. That’s why many CEOs stay mum on succession as long as possible. For instance, a handful of hopefuls are still duking it out to succeed General Electric chairman Jack Welch, who plans to retire at the end of next year.
Wall Street jitters
Still, it can make Wall Street nervous when there doesn’t seem to be a clear-cut candidate. At Disney, speculation frequently points to Joe Roth, the head of Walt Disney Studios. The studio’s chief financial officer, Rob Moore, is another possibility, as is ABC topper Robert Iger and several other executives at the studio and throughout the company. But no successor is likely in the near future, as Eisner is still a relatively young CEO and has given no indication of plans to step down.
Litvack has been senior exec VP and chief of corporate operations since August 1994 and has served on the Disney board of directors since April 1995. He joins Roy Disney as a vice chairman of the company.
Litvack joined Disney in April 1991 as senior VP and general counsel. He was promoted to exec VP the following December. In 1992, he also became executive in charge of human resources. He has participated in all the company’s major business decisions and was a particular force in the financial restructuring of EuroDisney (now Disneyland Paris), the company’s once-ailing theme park outside the French capital.
Before Disney, Litvack was a member of the executive committee and chairman of the litigation department of international law firm Dewey Ballantine. He served as assistant attorney general in charge of the antitrust division of the Dept. of Justice during the Carter administration.