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Mouse sets June bloom for Eisner replacement

Disney execs set to name successor

NEW YORK — Disney chairman George Mitchell affirmed Tuesday that the company’s board is committed to naming a successor to Michael Eisner in June and said “there has been no prior determination. There are no preconditions” but that “he or she will be the best possible person.”

“The entire board is fully and actively involved in the process,” the former Democratic senator told investors gathered at Walt Disney World in Orlando. “While the process is public, the details must be private for the board to go about the business of choosing wisely and well.”

This same meeting a year ago was disrupted by an unsolicited takeover offer from giant cabler Comcast. “That postcard was returned to sender,” Eisner said Tuesday with evident satisfaction.

In Disney’s dark days a year ago, that wasn’t such an obvious call. But since then, the stock is up and the company’s on a roll. Mouse execs said they increasingly view cable, and distribution in general, as a commodity and not essential to Disney’s portfolio.

That mindset, plus high prices, are why Disney has been conservative in expanding its TV station group, said prexy-chief operating officer Bob Iger. Disney owns fewer stations than its media rivals and has no duopolies.

Eisner plans to resign when his contract ends in September 2006. Iger is widely regarded as the likely successor given a turnaround at the ABC network and the Mouse’s overall strong perf and prospects.

In a string of presentations, consumer products head Andy Mooney outlined a strategy to boost Disney’s retails sales from $15 billion to $25 billion by 2009. Parks and resorts head Jay Rasulo talked about the new Hong Kong Disneyland opening in September.

In a Q&A late in the day, Eisner said he assumes Disney’s videogame business will eventually be large enough to form its own unit, whether through “a gigantic acquisition” or internal growth.

Mitchell introduced Iger as Disney’s “very able” prexy-COO.

Wall Streeters have been warming to Iger and were impressed by his easy and articulate presentation, standing center stage — not behind a podium with notes like most other speakers at the three-day meet.

“Not many people would be able to do that,” said Hal Vogel of Vogel Capital Management.

Iger noted that in his 30-year career, he had “basically worked for three people.”

“I’m not including Michael Ovitz,” he joked. (The former prexy’s standing — or lack thereof — in Disney’s chain of command figured prominently in the recently concluded Ovitz trial.)

He and Eisner traded compliments.

“Bob Iger more than anybody is responsible for the resurgence of the Walt Disney Co.,” said Eisner, calling him a dedicated team captain with an intimate knowledge of the ins and outs of Disney and the entertainment industry.

Mitchell, who will also retire in 2006, stressed Disney’s strides on the corporate governance front over the past several years. The board, seen for years as a group of Eisner patsies, has slimmed down, named more independent directors, reviewed formulas for executive compensation, eliminated its poison pill provision and taken other steps.

“As often happens, it is taking some time for perception to catch up to reality. But it will,” Mitchell said.

On Monday, proxy advisory service Glass Lewis advised investors to withhold support from Mitchell at Disney’s annual meeting in Minneapolis Feb. 11. Firm questioned his chairman credentials and his independence on the board.

Last year, a large number of shareholders withheld support from Eisner and Mitchell on the advice of proxy advisers and agitators Roy Disney and Stanley Gold. Eisner relinquished the chairman title. The upcoming meeting promises to be much less eventful.

Another powerful shareholder advisor, Institutional Shareholder Services, last week recommended stockholders support all board members.

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