BURBANK, Calif. - Walt Disney Co. directors tapped President Robert A. Iger yesterday to succeed Chief Executive Michael D. Eisner, writing the final chapter for an often stormy 21-year reign during which the company mushroomed from a moribund studio into a global entertainment giant.
The selection ended a high-profile search for a new leader for the fabled company, which has been under siege by critics who wanted to hasten Eis- ner's departure. He will remain until Sept. 30, and then Iger will take the helm of a conglomerate that has more than 100,000 employees, a global theme park empire, a library of such classic films as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the ESPN sports broadcasting juggernaut, the ABC network and the cartoon character Mickey Mouse.
Eisner will remain a member of the board of directors until Disney's annual meeting early next year. At that point, he is expected to cut his ties completely to the company he was hired to turn around in 1984.
Under Eisner, Disney grew from $1.7 billion in revenue to more than $30 billion. Eisner earned hundreds of millions of dollars in salary, bonuses and stock profits. But his tenure, and legacy, have been tarnished by widespread criticism of his autocratic management style, his frayed relations with key creative partners and the company's lackluster performance over much of the past decade.
Neither Eisner, 63, nor Iger, 54, was available yesterday to be interviewed. The announcement about Iger's ascension was made in a news release and the only person to take questions was Board Chairman George J. Mitchell, in a conference call with reporters.
Eisner said in a letter to Disney directors that he was ready to "clean off my hiking boots, restock my Mickey Mouse back pack and start surveying some of the other peaks that are on the horizon."
In the news release, Iger was quoted as saying that it was "truly an honor to be entrusted with the responsibility of guiding this great company that occupies such an important place in the hearts and minds of millions the world over toward a very bright future."
Critics have said that Iger lacks creative vision, faulting his role in overseeing once-struggling ABC. Many viewed him as damaged goods because of his close ties to Eisner, whom shareholders rebuked last March with a 45 percent no-confidence vote.
But over the past year, the longtime TV executive's stock has soared.
The new hit ABC shows Lost and Desperate Housewives clicked with viewers. ESPN continued to mint profits, while an improvement in Disney's overall earnings tempered shareholders concerns.
A polished and affable executive, Iger campaigned on Wall Street by meeting with investors and analysts to lay out his vision for the company.
"Bob's a very likable, well-known quantity," said Jeffrey Logsdon, an analyst with Harris Nesbitt Gerard. "And over the last six to nine months, Bob has taken a more visible role with Wall Street, and that's raised the confidence of many."
Iger was Eisner's candidate, although the CEO had in the past expressed reservations about whether Iger had the creative vision to lead.
And Iger's formal naming by the board failed to mollify critics who have said Disney needs nothing less than a housecleaning to fully regain its magic.
Roy E. Disney and Stanley P. Gold, who quit the Disney board in late 2003 and led the shareholder revolt against Eisner last year, accused the board yesterday of failing to find "a single external candidate interested in the job and thus handed Bob Iger the job by default."
But among several industry analysts and executives, Iger's elevation was well received.
"I've had a great working relationship with Bob Iger," said Miramax Films co-founder Harvey Weinstein, who is negotiating a split from Disney amid tensions with Eisner and other executives.
When he becomes chief executive, Iger will be under the gun to soothe nerves at a company that has been rocked in the past year by the shareholder revolt, an unsuccessful hostile takeover bid by cable giant Comcast Corp. and an embarrassing shareholder lawsuit over Eisner's hiring and firing of Michael Ovitz, Iger's predecessor as president.
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