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Mystery Mouse

Will Disney ever find its big cheese?

NEW YORK — Who’s on first?

That’s the question surrounding the secret “search” for a possible replacement for Disney CEO Michael Eisner. Though directors have hired an executive search firm and all sorts of names have been dropped as possible candidates, none of them has apparently been interviewed.

Hence, Disney insiders have begun to wonder, is this search so secret that not even the candidates know they’re being considered?

Officially, the search is secretive so potential candidates won’t be outed. Disney prexy Bob Iger continues to be seen as a leading contender, in no small part because he is the only acknowledged candidate.

While News Corp. prexy Peter Chernin said publicly in recent days that he’s not interested in going to the Mouse House, it’s not clear he’s entirely out of the race. Former Warner Bros. co-chair and Yahoo CEO Terry Semel is likely in the mix.

Word is that the board wanted to wait until the Feb. 11 gathering was over before sitting down and talking with candidates. But with a June deadline looming for announcing the next Disney chief exec, many in Hollywood wonder when the interview process will actually commence.

Chairman George Mitchell told shareholders last week that the board is following the advice of the executive search firm retained by the Mouse House, Heidrick & Struggles.

“At our first meeting, they strongly advised us, based on their vast experience, to keep the details of the search private, even as we made the process public. That will permit the board to frankly go about the business of choosing wisely and well. And we shall,” Mitchell said.

The reality is there’s a good chance names and places could start leaking once the board starts interviewing.

Insiders say such interviews could start any day now and the Disney board has spent a lot of time looking at background material pulled together by Heidrick & Struggles. Pool of names is likely to include Hollywood insiders and non-industry players.

“We got the impression that they will now start the heavy lifting,” one industryite said.

The search was fraught with potential problems in its very origins. Following the 2004 shareholder meeting, at which 45% of stockholders gave him a vote of no confidence, Eisner announced he would step down when his contract expires in 2006. (He was easily re-elected to another one-year term at last week’s meeting.)

Often overlooked in all the buzz about Eisner’s successor is the fact that Disney could soon be looking for a new chair as well — that is, if the jobs of chief exec and chair are kept split. Mitchell reiterated at the shareholder meeting that he plans to step down when his term expires next year.

Mitchell also gave every indication that the board, keen on corporate governance reform, wants to keep the two jobs distinct.

But it’s unclear whether the likes of Semel or Chernin would agree to come to the Mouse House without the full chair-CEO title.

Bob Daly, Semel’s former co-chair at Warner Bros., has made it clear he’d be interested in talking to the Disney board about the job of chair, but so far, the interest doesn’t seem to be mutual, even with Daly’s veteran standing.

Mouse House board member Gary Wilson also has expressed interest, but of current directors, Robert Matschullat is seen as the strongest contender for the chairmanship. Matschullat was chief financial officer at Seagram under Edgar Bronfman Jr. and, before that, head of worldwide investment banking for Morgan Stanley & Co.

The Disney board could conceivably combine the chair-CEO titles again if the right candidate came along.

Should the Mouse House keep the jobs separate, some industryites say it would make more sense to name a chairman before the chief exec.

Further muddling matters is the fact that the Disney board hasn’t said how long Eisner will remain at the Mouse House once his successor is named in June. Eisner’s contract doesn’t expire until September 2006.

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