Ex-Disney CEO can't let go

Retired Eisner plots next venture by sending out feelers to former colleagues

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December 06, 2005|By SALLIE HOFMEISTER | SALLIE HOFMEISTER,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LOS ANGELES -- How does a media mogul who has run a world-famous corporation for two decades suddenly transform himself into an entrepreneur?

If you are Michael D. Eisner, you turn to people you know and trust - the ones who previously worked for you.

Since retiring as chief executive of the Walt Disney Co. on Sept. 30, Eisner has reached out to two senior executives who still work at the entertainment company in Burbank, Calif. While he's stopped short of offering them jobs, he has broached the subject of working together in the future.

The overtures - to studio production chief Nina Jacobson and Peter E. Murphy, senior adviser to chief executive Robert A. Iger - underscore just how bound to Disney Eisner remains.

By putting out feelers to former colleagues, Eisner, 63, has provided the first real clues about his budding post-Disney plans. In Hollywood, where information is power, his schmoozing also has enlivened what was already favorite parlor game.

Among the top ranks of entertainment industry executives, predicting what Eisner will do next has become a fascination. After all, this is a guy who presided over the transformation of Disney from a struggling company worth $2 billion into a nearly $60-billion global empire with 10 theme parks, the ABC television network, cable channels such as ESPN, a library of more than 900 movie titles and 32,000 hotel rooms.

But Eisner hasn't made it easy to track his new venture - in part, friends say, because he's not yet sure what it is.

"He hasn't made up his mind about what comes next," said one Hollywood executive who spoke with Eisner recently. "He's looking at deals, deciding whether to buy or build."

To aid in that pursuit, he has hired two former Disney analysts, according to several Eisner acquaintances who asked not to be named for fear of offending their friend.

With his respected name and estimated $750 million in net worth, Eisner has the financial firepower, he has told friends, to create his own entertainment company. Harvey and Bob Weinstein, the founders of Miramax Film Corp., recently raised nearly $500 million for a new studio, and many believe Eisner could raise more than that.

Eisner has told friends he planned to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to finance a company that would create film, TV and Broadway productions.

Sources said he approached Jacobson, the president of production at Disney's film studio, about playing some role. Jacobson described their conversations as casual, and said that Eisner never offered her a job.

"No way did he approach me about working at his company," she said. "We talked about maybe someday working together again in the distant future. But there was not a specific intention."

Jacobson said she plans to stay at Disney.

Eisner's employment contract prevents him from raiding the ranks of the nation's second-largest entertainment giant until 2007. Through a spokesman, Eisner said he had not offered anyone at Disney a job.

Another Disney employee who Eisner has brainstormed with is Murphy, who until recently headed Disney's strategic planning unit. During the Eisner years, that unit was known as "the business prevention unit" because it torpedoed so many proposed ventures.

In his first act after being named Eisner's designated successor in March, CEO Iger reduced Murphy's powers by downsizing the strategic planning unit. Murphy continues to serve in a key role, however. He is Disney's point man in the sensitive negotiations with Comcast Corp. for the distribution of Disney content on the nation's leading cable company.

Murphy has made no secret of his desire to leave Disney to work in the investment world. Eisner has talked to him about the possibility of working together to create a new fund focusing on media, sources say.

In an interview, Murphy said it was premature to comment since he had not yet decided about his future.

Should Eisner opt for a financial future, it would be out of character. He made his name as a creative visionary, not an architect of high-stakes deals. At Disney, no detail escaped him, from picking the wallpaper on Disney's cruise ships to making suggestions about the replacement for Kathie Lee Gifford as Regis Philbin's sidekick on the ABC talk show.

Some experts say Eisner's reputation as a hands-on manager will serve him well, no matter how he structures his future.

"Certain kinds of people can't make the transition to being an entrepreneur, but Eisner can," said Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean at the Yale School of Management, who described Eisner's role at Disney as "a hub with spokes coming off and everything within arm's reach."

"It was an entrepreneurial style Eisner displayed in bringing Disney back to life," Sonnenfeld said, adding: "He has an `I'll show you' kind of attitude and will spend his last breath foiling the critics."

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