Disney loses int’l honcho

Johnson heads to Herbalife

Exec turnover continues at Disney, with word Thursday that longtime exec Michael Johnson will ankle as prexy of Walt Disney Intl. to become CEO at Herbalife, effective April 14.

The exit of Johnson, 48, follows last year’s departure by well-regarded theme parks czar Paul Pressler for the top spot at Gap after a string of earlier defections. Burbank conglom has become uncomfortably accustomed to grooming up-and-comers, only to see them bolt for greener pastures once they hit their exec stride.

“This move just kind of fits me like a glove, both in terms of my own interest and my business skill sets,” Johnson said. “But parting is sweet sorrow.”

Herbalife is a marketer of weight loss and nutritional products, and Johnson is a self-described “fitness enthusiast.” But it’s clear his chief enthusiasm is big business. “When you work for a big company like Disney you get to run things, but you’re not running the company, just pieces,” he said. “This will allow me to run the whole show.”

A 17-year Disney vet, Johnson was appointed to oversee all international Disney operations in April 2000. He succeeded Disney prexy Robert Iger as head of conglom’s international ops after previously serving as prexy-managing director of Walt Disney Intl. Asia.

At home in video

Before that he was prexy of Disney’s home entertainment unit after an earlier stint atop international homevid. Over the course of Johnson’s Mouse tenure, Disney’s vid presence spread from 34 markets in 1986 to more than 80.

There was no immediate word on who will succeed Johnson in overseeing conglom’s sprawling international operations; job calls for managing an array of film and TV units as well as substantial biz development responsibilities. A related priority during the exec search will be nixing any notion of a Disney brain drain.

CEO Michael Eisner has refused to discuss repeated calls from investors for a clear succession plan at the company. He claims to have given the Disney board the name of a person he would choose as a successor in the event of any unforeseen exec emergency, and it’s believed that person is Iger.

Disney’s chief financial officer, Tom Staggs, also is highly regarded, both within the company and on Wall Street, filling a post that has seen a host of bright execs come and go during Eisner’s tenure. And, of course, Walt Disney Studios chairman Dick Cook holds considerable sway at the conglom as head of the core filmed-entertainment biz.

Conglom’s previous exec defections include, most recently, the flight of two top legal eagles. Disney exec VP-general counsel Lou Meisinger left in January to return to private practice and counsel-turned-vice chairman Sandy Litvak ankled two years before that.

CFO parade

More alarming to investors was a rapid turnover of Mouse chief financial officers in the mid-1990s.

Stephen Bollenbach ankled that post to take a job as chief exec at Hilton Hotels in 1996, and two years later the similarly admired Richard Nanula ankled for a CEO position at Starwood Hotels. Bollenbach remains chairman-CEO at Hilton; Nanula is exec VP-CFO at Amgen in Thousand Oaks.

Herbalife has been searching for a chief exec for several months since the departure of its previous topper. The L.A.-based company announced Johnson’s appointment, with Disney issuing only a brief statement by Iger on the departure.

“On behalf of the entire Disney management team, I’d like to congratulate Michael on his new position,” Iger said. “During his 17 years with the company, Michael has been a part of a team that has contributed significantly to the expansion of the Disney brand globally. This is a tribute to the strength and depth of Disney’s executive bench that other companies continue to find their leaders from among our ranks.”

News of the move circulated after the close of market trading Thursday, as Mouse shares fell 33¢ on the day to close at $17.65. But there were signs the Street would have a measured response, in part because conglom has such a broad array of execs still aboard at various units.

“There is the issue of the loss of executive talent, but it’s hard for executives to pass up on a CEO opportunity,” Houlihan, Lokey, Howard & Zukin analyst David Davis observed.

“Disney has been a wonderful incubator of management talent over the years,” Sanders Morris Harris’ David Miller said. “So it never really surprises me when someone leaves eventually to go and run another company.”

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