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Shareholders Are Nice as Mice

What succession issue? Attendees at Disney's annual meeting this year prefer to talk about clean parks.

February 12, 2005|Richard Verrier | Times Staff Writer

MINNEAPOLIS — There were no protests this year, no pickets, no calls for Chief Executive Michael Eisner to pack his bags.

In contrast to the Philadelphia rebellion of one year ago, Walt Disney Co.'s annual shareholder meeting Friday was a tepid three-hour affair perhaps best summed up by Nancy Walsh, a 54-year-old mother of four from Plymouth, Minn., who owns 375 shares.

"I thought it was wonderful. I've never been to a meeting before," she said, after having her picture taken with "Aladdin" character Princess Jasmine. "People in the Midwest, we tend to be a lot gentler, not like the spitfire East Coasters."

It was last March that Eisner was roasting on the grill as big institutional shareholders slapped him with a 45% no-confidence vote that led to his being stripped of his chairman's title. This year Eisner and Disney's 11 other directors got a warm reception in a city where Friday's 45-degree temperature seemed downright tropical compared with the often subfreezing weather of February. The company said it selected Minnesota because it likes to rotate the meetings around the country and because it has radio operations there.

Encouraged by better earnings, an improved stock price and a promise that Disney's board is searching for Eisner's successor, shareholders overwhelmingly elected each director. Each received at least 9 out of 10 shares voted. Disney President Robert Iger, who hopes to succeed Eisner, got a boost for his candidacy by garnering 95% of the shares voted.

Beyond that, the meeting touched on, but revealed little new about, such issues as the search for a successor to Eisner, the company's strained relationship with its Miramax film unit and Disney's falling-out with Pixar Animation Studios, maker of such hits as "The Incredibles."

The meeting, with more than 2,000 attending, had the air of a populist, grass-roots convention. It also served as a reminder that many of the mom-and-pop shareholders who make up a good chunk of the company's ownership base care little about the issues Wall Street obsesses over, such as succession, the fallout from a bruising new book on Disney and quarterly earnings.

One man complained at length about the design of Figment, a dragon character at Disney's Epcot. A nun asked about the status of Disney's smoking policy. A Vero Beach, Fla., shareholder asked, "Could you think about a warmer place for next year?"

Both Eisner and Iger played to the Midwesterners. After showing a segment boasting of the success of the ESPN sports cable business, Iger said, "I'd be remiss if I didn't say, 'Go Timberwolves, go Vikings, go Twins!,' " naming Minnesota's basketball, football and baseball franchises.

As for Eisner, he skirted succession topics, leaving them to Chairman George J. Mitchell, who promised a thorough search that would include external candidates. Friday's meeting at the Minneapolis Convention Center was likely to have been Eisner's last as Disney CEO, as company directors have promised to identify a successor by June.

With the pressure off compared with a year ago, Eisner was relaxed. After repeated questions from longtime corporate gadfly Evelyn Y. Davis, he cracked, "If I stay here any longer, George is going to fire me. We're never going to be out of this room."

Some stockholders said they hadn't even paid attention to the succession drama captivating Hollywood and Wall Street.

"It doesn't really bother me who they select to run the company as long as he does a good job," said Kim Gardner, 46, of Cottage Grove, Minn., wearing a red Mickey Mouse jacket. The mother of three, who said she has visited Walt Disney World 13 times, bought a single Disney share online last year as a novelty.

Others such as Mary Clare Enger, 52, of St. Paul, Minn., had more personal concerns. She bemoaned the cost and level of cleanliness at the theme parks, which her father introduced her to when she was a child by taking her to Disneyland.

"They used to be sparkling clean," Enger said. "The price is always going up. It's almost prohibitive for a family."

Then there was Mike Klein, a 46-year-old systems analyst from Minneapolis who owns 100 shares. Klein, who proudly wore a Mickey Mouse T-shirt, said he attended because, "Where else can you walk around and see Goofy and Pluto?"

The two dissident stockholders who dominated attention at last year's meeting -- former directors Stanley P. Gold and Roy E. Disney -- attended as expected, having previously announced they were not supporting any of the 12 directors. But, unlike Philadelphia, where the two provided the fireworks by taking the stage to skewer Eisner, both came and went without speaking publicly.

That disappointed David Hoitmoit, a 55-year-old banker from Minnetonka, Minn. Intrigued by news accounts of last year's raucous meeting, he'd hoped at least to get a taste of corporate fireworks.

"I came for the entertainment," Hoitmoit said. "I thought it was going to be like an all-star wrestling match."

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