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THE NATION

Disney Daughter Says Eisner Should Leave

But Diane Disney Miller opposes her cousin Roy's 'vicious' campaign against the CEO.

March 10, 2004|James Bates | Times Staff Writer

Walt Disney's sole surviving child broke her silence Tuesday on the growing furor surrounding the empire her father founded, saying Michael Eisner should resign soon as chief executive.

"It's time to step down and let someone else come in for the future," Diane Disney Miller said in an interview. "New leadership is necessary. I think Michael Eisner did some great things for the company but there also are some not so great things."

Given her lineage, Miller's comments are certain to add to the increasing pressure on Eisner and Walt Disney Co.'s board. Major shareholders have been calling for Eisner to step down as CEO after nearly two decades in the post. Last week, he received an unprecedented 43% vote of no confidence in his unopposed reelection to the board. He subsequently was stripped of his title as chairman, but was allowed to remain as the company's top manager.

The company did not respond directly to Miller's comments. In a statement, it reiterated the board's belief that Disney's improved earnings and its strategic direction "make us confident that results will validate our judgment on the quality of our management team."

During her interview with The Times, Miller, 70, distanced herself from what she called a "vicious and personal" campaign being led by her cousin, former board member Roy E. Disney, aimed at Eisner's immediate ouster.

She said the abrupt removal of Eisner could cause the stock price to plunge, making the Burbank-based entertainment conglomerate vulnerable to Comcast Corp.'s recent unsolicited $49-billion takeover bid.

"Roy's move was ill timed, and it helped put the company in play," Miller said. "It showed there is weakness and discord at the top of the company. Roy loves the company as much as I do, and he wants to see it remain independent too. But what he has done has put it in jeopardy."

Told of Miller's comments, Roy Disney said through a spokesman that "while we may disagree on tactics, I am obviously pleased that Diane agrees that it's time for a new chief executive at Disney. Twenty years, indeed, is long enough."

Miller said that Eisner's departure should be orderly and come sooner rather than later, with directors forcing the issue if he resists.

"You don't want him ripped from the company because there is nobody to take his place," Miller said. "I want it to be his decision to go but, Michael being who he is, I don't think that will happen. So it has to be up to the board."

Miller, a San Francisco resident, has had only sporadic dealings with the company in recent years. Although she sold her personal stock in the late 1980s, she said her branch of the family owned about 2 million shares -- valued at about $50 million -- through her children, grandchildren, trusts and a foundation named after her parents.

In recent years, her most visible activity has been helping complete her mother's dream of building the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles.

Her relationship with both the company and with her cousin has at times been tense over the years, stemming largely from Roy Disney's push to remove her husband, Ron Miller, as the company's CEO in 1984. That paved the way for Eisner's hiring. In recent years, however, the family has patched up many of those differences, she said.

Last week, Miller said, her family spurned a call by her cousin and his business partner, former Disney director Stanley P. Gold, to join the movement to withhold votes for Eisner's board reelection. Miller said she refused because she did not want to further embolden Comcast.

"The whole Comcast bid just scares me to death," Miller said, explaining why she is now speaking out. "We're so sad. We feel helpless. If this company ever loses its independence it will never be what it had been. This should not be a subsidiary of a cable company."

After Comcast unveiled its bid last month, Miller urged Disney's board in a letter to keep the company independent "for what it represents in entertainment and what the man [Walt Disney] himself represents."

She also suggested that a successor be groomed to replace Eisner when his contract expires in 2006.

Miller said Eisner, who received the letter, let her know that he disagreed.

Since that time, Miller said, she has had a change of heart: She said she had concluded that the board should move more quickly to replace Eisner, possibly in six months to a year if the right person was found. "This has to be a sincere effort," Miller said. "It can't be a sham."

Walt Disney's only other child, Sharon Disney Lund, died of cancer in 1993.

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