Board on the run

Michael Eisner, please bring the Walt Disney Co.'s annual meeting back to Orlando. We promise we'll behave better than those jerks out in Anaheim did.

That's the message hundreds of Disney's Florida-based stockholders, such as Tampa resident Michelene Husted, have been trying to get across to the company's CEO for nearly five years now in an effort to get Uncle Mikey to bring the meeting home to them.

To date, Husted's efforts have all been in vain, as Eisner -- in a virtual game of hide-and-seek with Disney stockholders -- has moved the annual meeting to far-flung locations all over the country. The idea is to have the gatherings anywhere but near the company's two major bases of operation, where concentrated numbers of disgruntled stockholders and employees might vent their dissatisfaction.

This year's event moves way up north to the civic center in Hartford, Conn., on Feb. 19. Last year it was in Fort Worth, Texas. The year before, it was in Seattle; before that, in Chicago and Kansas City.

It didn't used to be that way. Time was, as recently as the mid-1990s, that the meeting rotated between Orlando and Anaheim. In Orlando years, loyal stockholders (and Disneyana fans) like Husted would always make a special trip to Lake Buena Vista to attend.

Why? According to Husted, the annual meetings were a lot of fun. "Even before the doors to the meeting hall were opened, Disney was already putting on a show. There were all these tables covered with free refreshments, as well as dozens of Disney costumed characters on hand, eager to pose for pictures."

The fun usually continued once stockholders got inside. Sure, there would be the usual dry-as-dust financial presentation, but the Mouse would balance things out by treating stockholders to elaborate previews of upcoming Disney films. In 1994, for example, animator Glen Keane showed the assemblage how he had come up with the design of the title character for the studio's yet-to-be-released animated feature, "Pocahontas." And, composer Alan Menken performed numbers from the movie's score.

"But the best part of attending Disney's meeting," says Husted, "was that -- as you exited the hall -- you were handed this free pass to any of the company's Florida theme parks. What's not to like about that?"

No doubt, Eisner would be thrilled if all of his company's stockholders were as easy to please. But, these days many of them need more than a complimentary ticket and/or photo opportunity with Mickey Mouse in order to stay upbeat about their investment.

It was a tumultuous 1997 meeting in Anaheim that persuaded Eisner to take the show on the road. (It's harder to hit a moving target, you know.) That was the year the Mouse paid more than $100 million to Mike Ovitz, the Hollywood mover-and-shaker whom Eisner had personally recruited as his No. 2, to vacate a job he had held for only 14 months. At that year's meeting, the Mouse put on the same sort of elaborate show that stockholders typically saw here in Orlando. It included an indoor fireworks display as well as a performance of songs from the studio's soon-to-be-released animated film, "Hercules."

Yet despite the preliminary fun, shareholder after shareholder stood up during the open forum to lambaste Eisner for his lame-brained handling of the Ovitz affair. According to insiders, an embarrassed Eisner immediately decided that all future stockholders' meetings would be held as far away from Anaheim and Orlando as possible. Why lump the two locations together? Because Eisner feared that Disney World cast members also would take issue with the enormous Ovitz payout -- and, more recently, about other economic concerns. (The spin from Disney's PR flacks is that the moveable meetings give more shareholders a chance to attend.)

Despite the current good news that Disney had better-than-expected earnings for the last quarter, this year's meeting likely will raise a new controversy. A vocal group of shareholders is uneasy with what it views as Disney's far-too-cozy relationship with Pricewaterhouse-Coopers, from which it has purchased both auditing and consulting services. The stockholders fear that Disney is leaving itself open to an Enron-like conflict-of-interest situation. In an effort to cut off an awkward floor fight, Eisner stated last week that Disney will no longer purchase both services from the same firm.

Although the move might save him from some embarrassment in Hartford, Eisner undoubtedly would prefer that most stockholders just stay home (again) this year. Particularly those from Anaheim and Orlando.

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