With a retirement date set, Disney CEO Michael Eisner tells FORTUNE why he craves drama, still micromanages--and won't stay on as chairman.
By Patricia Sellers

(FORTUNE Magazine) – IN AN ERA OF CEOS UNDER ATTACK, NO boss has faced the flak that Disney chief Michael Eisner has--and survived. Since last spring, when he beat back a very public effort to oust him (led by Walt's nephew Roy Disney and former director Stanley Gold) and a hostile takeover attempt by cable titan Comcast, Eisner has been ducking the press. Or at least trying to--squabbles with Steve Jobs (who heads Pixar, Disney's animation partner) and Harvey and Bob Weinstein (who run Disney-owned Miramax) have kept him front and center. In September, Eisner unexpectedly announced that he intends to retire as CEO Sept. 30, 2006, after 22 years at the helm and when his current contract ends. While the news comes as Disney is rebounding, it inevitably sparked more fireworks. Roy Disney and Gold suspect that Eisner will attempt to stay in power, perhaps as chairman. (Eisner's take on Roy and Stanley? Don't ask; he wouldn't say.) With his critics vowing to force Eisner out by next spring, the pressures are unrelenting. Here, in his first wide-ranging interview since he made his announcement, Eisner talks about the brouhaha and beyond:

How did you make your decision?

I just decided I wasn't going to be a perpetuity CEO. Nobody inside the company knew it was coming, and none of my friends knew it was coming. Jane [Eisner's wife] was a good sounding board and a good editor of my letter. I did, in the last two weeks, discuss with every board member the decision I made and how they felt about it. I sent the letter an hour after I had the last meeting with the last board member who didn't know about it.

So, do you want to be chairman after you step down as CEO, and do you want to stay on the board?

I have not asked the board to stay on the board or be chairman after the end of my contract. My assumption is that I would not continue on the board or as chairman. I have a full business life ahead of me. Clearly I'm not the type to retire, particularly after I've heard all these lectures from medical experts about how an active mind is good for the body. But as far as continuing on the board or as chairman, it's just not in my mind at this time.

You've recommended that the board choose Bob Iger to succeed you as CEO. Will the board hire a firm to do an outside search, even as it considers Iger?

That's something that the board will decide. I made myself clear to the company that they have a candidate who not only has the experience in all the businesses in which we operate but also understands the Disney culture, is extremely well liked inside the company and out, has been a great COO, and manages 90% of the company today, including ESPN and its great growth. The board may decide to benchmark him against other people.

Bob's contract expires in September 2005. Given that he reportedly wants to know by spring whether he's in line to get the job, isn't there urgency to select a successor?

Bob has not mentioned his contractual date to anybody. That's not Bob's style. Bob is a total professional, patient. You can't interpret any timing based on Bob's contract.

What are the chances you'll step down before 2006?

Well, there's no chance of it in my mind today because I've committed to see through to 2006 the orderly process of transition and strategic planning. I just don't see that on the horizon.

Does some part of you enjoy all the drama?

I felt, in my 20s at ABC and in my 30s at Paramount, enormous pressure every day making movies or dealing with producers or facing failures in television, or hits, or having actors not show up on the set. That's been part of my life. Frankly, it has not added pressure--it's just added a lot of people who know about the pressure. The actual pressure seems to stimulate me and creates a competitive sense of wanting to succeed even more.

Will Pixar stay with Disney?

Discussing Pixar in this context is probably not a good idea. Whether or not Pixar and Disney come closer together past 2006 than they're projected to be or whether or not Miramax stays with the company--well, Miramax is staying, but whether management stays--is simply an issue of value to our shareholders. It has nothing to do at all with personalities. Never has.

What does "value to our shareholders" mean--money? Say it in English.

Exactly. Disney certainly would like to continue with Pixar if we can make a deal that we can live with. And the exact same thing is true with Miramax. If we can't make a deal that makes economic sense, we just have to be strong enough to move on.

Your critics say you micromanage.

Some people--board members, big shareholders--say to me, "That's why we hired you." The word "micromanager" is pejorative, but an executive who demands excellence is a CEO I would invest behind. You know, if you use the word the way you do, it sounds like something you should go to Mount Sinai or Sloan-Kettering to get cured from. If you use it the way I'm talking about it, which is a work ethic and demand for product quality, it's something worthwhile.

Do you still love your job?

I absolutely love it. What I love is the creation of a hotel or a cruise ship or a movie or a television show. I'm thoroughly involved now in developing Mary Poppins, bringing it to Broadway. I think it's going to be bigger than Lion King. I'll take all the bad articles in the world for three hours in a rehearsal hall with Mary Poppins.

So what's next after Disney?

I'm going to Disneyland.


What do I know? I'm hopeful somebody will find me of value.

Jane and your kids--or a company where you can be a CEO again?

No, no. I'll start there. My son is directing a movie. Maybe he'll ask me for advice.