The Disney Touch

Walt Disney Productions followed the classic pattern of family-run businesses: Every aspect was controlled by either Walt (the creative side) or Roy (the business side), with little effort made to groom successors. Once its founder’s vision was gone (Walt Disney died in 1966), the company became a prisoner of its past. By 1984, Disney was in the midst of a takeover battle, in danger of falling forever from its former glory and being sold off in pieces. White knight Sid Bass, a Texan billionaire, came to the company’s rescue and backed a new management team led by Eisner and Wells.

All of this is only a prologue to Grover’s real subject, the stunning turnaround engineered by the Eisner administration. The timing was right. The entertainment industry was rebounding, new markets for home video and cable were expanding, and the baby boomers’ children had grown old enough to enjoy Disney’s toys and films. The Walt Disney Company, still well-known and loved, was endowed with valuable real estate holdings and some of the world’s most marketable characters.

Exploiting Disney’s existing assets took many forms, including higher prices and new development at the theme parks, an aggressive program to release the library of film and cartoons on videocassette, and improvements in the Disney Channel. The flagging movie and television production units were rebuilt, and the consumer products group found new licensees, as well as moving into marketing products themselves through mail order and the new Disney Store retail outlets.

It’s an extraordinary success story—nearly everything Disney touched (with the notable exception of its network TV offerings) seemed to turn to gold. To really come to life, a company history like this needs details; Grover was given enough access to company personnel and documents to provide plenty of them. Not juicy gossip, but sufficient quotes to give an inside perspective on major strategic moves, and numbers to flesh out the deals. As the complexity of the company’s activities grew, Grover opted to organize many chapters around major issues, ignoring strict chronology. This can cause confusion; a timeline would have helped. But that’s a minor quibble with an otherwise fascinating and very readable account.