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Michael Eisner is sitting in his Los Angeles office, fumbling with the buttons on his phone, trying to put me on hold. After his second failed attempt, a female assistant steps in and saves the day. Eisner seems neither flustered nor embarrassed by this. Perhaps it’s because figuring out the hold feature on his office phone is about the only thing the man has yet to master in the business world.
After all, Eisner is the media savant who soared up the ranks at ABC to become a VP before the age of 30. A mere five years later, he was running Paramount Pictures and green-lighting box office hits such as Saturday Night Fever, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Terms of Endearment. He followed that with a 21-year tenure as chairman and chief executive of the Walt Disney Corp., which he transformed from a $1.8 billion animation and amusement park company into an $80 billion global conglomerate. He’s written best sellers, hosted his own show on CNBC, been deemed one of the most powerful men in the world, and along the way, maintained a successful marriage that’s survived in Hollywood for more than four decades. He didn’t even let a little thing like heart-bypass surgery get in the way of his wheeling and dealing (just minutes before he went under the knife, Eisner told his surgeon he could have his tickets to the World Cup finals as long as he lived through the procedure to watch the event on television).
Eisner’s latest ventures seem to follow his winning formula: making crossroads—and even profits—in areas at the forefront of new media. Clumped together under the private investment group The Tornante Company, they include Vuguru, a Web studio responsible for Prom Queen, one of the few Internet series to achieve early success; Diversion, the creator of a social media game on Facebook called FameTown; and Team Baby Entertainment, which produces sports-themed DVDs for children. He’s even taken Topps, the 73-year-old trading card and bubble gum giant, which his company purchased in 2007, into the digital age. The company has created a virtual trading-card collecting game for kids and teamed with Vuguru to conceive a fictitious Web-based sitcom centered on the sibling heirs to the Topps empire.
Of course, like Mickey’s Matterhorn, Eisner’s ride to the top has had its ups and downs. There were name-slinging power struggles, costly court battles, tattered friendships and public grumblings about his inflated earnings. He’s been branded a micromanager, an egomaniac, a tyrant and an oligopolist. But the one insult that hasn’t been flung at Eisner is “failure.”
Eisner’s tremendous success—however some people think he attained it—has proven to be a boon for others who haven’t faired nearly as well, specifically the hundreds of local seniors and at-risk children who have been helped by the Eisner Foundation. The 69-year-old Eisner founded the organization back in 1996. Funded entirely by the Eisner family and doted on by Eisner as intently as any of his moneymaking enterprises, the foundation offers financial support and counseling to a carefully selected group of nonprofit organizations throughout Los Angeles County.
“I’ve learned that it is often as difficult to give money away intelligently as it is to make it intelligently,” Eisner told me when we chatted by phone. “It’s a very complicated business. There are many, many organizations that are worthy and have the structure to get the efforts right to the recipient, and then there are some, just like in business, that are flaky and not run well.”
When asked the difference between running a charitable foundation and a major corporation, he focused instead on the similarities: “Both are rewarding, both are interesting and both can have an impact. Both can succeed if they have the right kind of strategic plan and direction. Both can succeed with strong creativity and good fiscal oversight. Both can succeed if you’re reasonable and patient and willing to accept some failure. Both can succeed or not, depending on the management running it.”
The manager overseeing the day-to-day operations of the Eisner Foundation is executive director Trent Stamp, who has his own equally impressive résumé, which includes authoring a nationally syndicated blog recognized by The New York Times and being named by New Jersey Business magazine as one of the state’s best “40 Business Leaders Under 40.” Most recently, Stamp was the president of Charity Navigator, the nation’s largest charity and nonprofit watchdog group.
“Michael lets me run the foundation, but he’s very involved,” Stamp says. (“I’m a meddler” is how Eisner describes his role.) “He is into philanthropy for the right reasons. He wants to have a long-term impact. He wants to see the transformative effect his money is having.” To that end, Eisner and his wife, Jane, whom Eisner calls the “head Eisner at the foundation,” visit the organizations and the citizens served by the foundation. “They play with the kids, they talk to the seniors and then they go home without all of the media fanfare,” says Stamp, offering nary a hint of the self-absorbed autocrat Eisner was sometimes made out to be. “I have found him to be extremely humble, modest and generous. He is very grandfatherly to me and insists that my kids call him Michael. ‘I’m your friend,’ he tells them.”
Eisner’s own children—sons Breck, Eric and Anders—and their extended families are involved in the foundation as well. “Having the family work as a unit is one of the benefits of having the foundation,” Eisner says. “They all go on site visits, and all vote and participate and discuss their opinions. It’s the same thing I did with my parents’ foundation. Philanthropy was drilled into us.”
Growing up in New York, Eisner lived in an apartment on Park Avenue and led a life of privilege. “My grandfather was a very wealthy man, but he would go across the Queensboro Bridge to save the 25 cents on the Triborough Bridge,” Eisner once confessed. After college (he eschewed his father’s alma mater, Princeton, for Denison University, a small liberal arts school outside Columbus, Ohio), Eisner toyed for a while with being a playwright, but the corporate world soon came calling. Still, talk to Eisner for any length of time and it’s clear that creativity, not pie charts and productivity levels, is what really gets him fired up. In fact, you might call it his buzzword.
“I’m really interested in creativity. It’s the work I’ve been in all my life,” Eisner says when I ask him about the impetus behind one of his newest pet projects, the Eisner Foundation’s inaugural Eisner Prize for Intergenerational Excellence.
Designed to recognize outstanding achievement by an individual or nonprofit group in serving diverse generations, particularly seniors and youth (the foundation’s main recipients), the first annual Eisner Prize comes with a $100,000 cash award and will be presented at a conference in Washington, D.C., in late October.
“We started talking about the concept about a year ago,” Eisner says. “Part of the idea was that it would help show people you can create ways of doing philanthropy that are more than just writing a check—although writing a check is always a part of it.”
“It was an evolution,” Stamp adds. “We kept thinking that there has to be a better way to work with kids and seniors simultaneously, to kill two birds with one stone.”
“I hope that it spurs creativity in the area of multigenerational cooperation,” Eisner says. Examples might be a neighborhood development program where school-age kids and retirees work together to build houses or a complex that houses a preschool and senior center in the same building so they can share staff and facilities.
From the “overwhelming” number of entries they have received, this year’s five finalists, each of whom will receive a $5,000 check, have already been chosen. The $100,000 winner will be announced Oct. 27, when Eisner puts that money and savvy to good use and hands the prize to an innovative enterprise one can only hope has as much influence and success as the big man himself.
In the Mind of Michael Eisner
His advice for high school seniors: “I would start with getting a good liberal arts education. I believe in the college environment. I believe in studying English, religion, language, philosophy, economics, history; all are important. And before you decide on a specific field, it’d be good to have a general knowledge of different things.”
His idols growing up: “Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays. For a boy, sports stars tend to be idols. I never really idolized a businessman or a lawyer or an accountant.”
Upon being asked why he doesn’t take a lot of vacations: “I think I’m on a 365-day vacation! I really like what I do, and if I have to travel somewhere, it’s work and vacation. When I grew up, sitting on the beach seemed to be the thing to do. Now we find out that it gives you skin cancer. So luckily I never liked sitting on the beach. There’s too much sunscreen. And I can’t read with sunglasses because they’re not prescription. Really, it’s not a pleasant environment.”
His prerequisite for writing another book: “I keep thinking of ideas and rejecting them. I’ll get a couple of chapters into one and then decide it is the dumbest thing that ever happened and move on. So I’m playing around with a few ideas. It has to be a book about something worthy but that’s fun to do. It’s too much work not to be fun.”
On the secret to creating lasting business or life partnerships: “I think the secret is to pick well in the beginning. If you pick well in the beginning, it may work. If you pick badly, I don’t care what you do, it’s not going to work.”
Where the name of his company came from: “I was on a bike trip in Italy, and as I was coming down a mountain, every time I went around a corner it said, ‘Tornante.’ As I got to the bottom of the mountain, my cell phone rang, and it was my lawyer saying he needed a name for my company. I was looking at a sign that said ‘Tornante,’ so I said, ‘Call it Tornante.’ He said, ‘What does that mean?’ I said, ‘I’m not sure, but something with a turn.’ ” (Turns out, it means “hairpin turn” in Italian.)
On new areas for expansion: “I like anything that’s interesting and unique, that has a potential to grow.”