Friday, March 5, 2004

Company's stock rise adds to uncertainty over Eisner

By Gary Gentile
The Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA - The shareholders of The Walt Disney Co. have spoken. But what exactly did they say?

The answer remained unclear Thursday, a day after 43 percent of shareholders withheld votes for Michael Eisner at a marathon annual meeting.

Disney's board reacted quickly, stripping Eisner of the title of chairman and giving it to board member George Mitchell. Eisner remains chief executive.

The move, which included the board's unanimous endorsement of Eisner's strategic plans for the company, pleased few and left many wondering what had changed at Disney.

The three-month campaign of ex-board members Stanley Gold and Roy E. Disney to oust Eisner reached a fever pitch Wednesday when they took the stage at the Pennsylvania Convention Center to confront him. The two have said they would not be satisfied until Eisner left the company.

Analysts and industry observers are left wondering if Eisner can lead Disney until his contract expires in two years or if the board's move will be enough to fend off further assaults from dissidents as well as cable giant Comcast Corp., which has made an unwelcome bid to acquire the Magic Kingdom.

"Disney is not a broken company," said Richard Greenfield, an analyst at Fulcrum Global Partners. "The question is: What was the message investors were trying to send and how did the board react?"

Shares of Disney were up 15 cents to close at $26.80 on the New York Stock Exchange.

Greenfield said Wednesday he thought Comcast would seek to take advantage of the Disney decision to leave Eisner in power, particularly if Disney's stock dropped and Comcast rose Thursday. But both stocks gained, leaving analysts scratching their heads.

"If the stock keeps trading up, they will probably feel vindicated (that) they made the right decision," Greenfield said, speaking of Disney's board. "If the stock trades down, then they will have some explaining to do."

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