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I have been asked by a few people if studying the history of The Walt Disney Company from the management angle destroys the magic for me? It doesn’t, in fact it actually enhances it. At least for me, when you learn of the dysfunctional executive management throughout its history, I am in reality more impressed by the “magic” that the company manages to create. I seem to be someone who has been able to separate the appreciation and enjoyment of fantasy with the need for, and understanding of, reality. When I’m seeing a Disney movie, or am in one of the theme parks, I don’t give a second thought to how the companies are run, or the personalities of the individuals involved. If they can allow me, even for a few moments, to escape the bonds of reality and experience enjoyment, I am great with that idea. But, that doesn’t discount the amazing story of how Disney to where it is today, or how it almost didn’t… I find that part of the magic very interesting as well.
“Storming the Magic Kingdom” by John Taylor is an account of the individuals who attempted and in some cases succeeded in exploiting the effects of dysfunctional executive management of a company, and management’s efforts to thwart hostile takeover. Any account of the many hostile takeovers, that have occurred, would be the same. Some of you may be thinking that I’m being overly negative when I assert the claim of dysfunctionality, it’s not intended to be negative, but rather matter of fact. Whether it be family, friends, non-profit or for-profit business, any where there are parties great than one involved in control, ego and personal agenda becomes involved. Dominant egos tend to take or try to take control of the situation. Supported by “Storming the Magic Kingdom” and several other tomes (check the side bar links for these resources) I have read about Disney management the following is my conjecture:
So what led to this attempted siege of Magic Kingdom’s castle?
The groundwork of this siege was actually laid when the company was started. With the co-founders being brothers there was, at its inception, a dynamic to the company operation not found in most business. Add to that, the personalities of the two brother being so diametrically opposed. Walt Disney, the very gregarious, effusive, and the creative part of the relationship. Roy Disney, the quiet, reserved, behind the scene, financial mastermind of the business. To paraphrase Walt, he was a little bee, flying from garden to meadow pollinating the flower (the company’s creative project). What hasn’t been clearing communicated was Roy’s position of rather quietly following behind Walt, creating and managing the financial requirement needed to allow these flowers (projects) to blossom. This worked, and worked quite well, as the company began to experience success and grow, but the company grew to the point where this relationship began to create strains on the brothers’ relationship. Had the brothers been just friends instead of family, we can speculate that the friends would just part ways, and what we have come to know as The Walt Disney Company would have most likely ceased to exist. But, instead, the brothers soldiered on; Walt building and mentoring his cadre of creative people, and Roy doing the same for his operations people.
Any hard core Disney fan has heard the company classifications of Walt’s Boys and Roy’s Boys. Unless someone produces some, as yet unknown to me, recordings or personal notes between Walt and Roy, we will only have the recollections of the people around Walt and Roy to rely on. I’m not knocking any of these people, but ask any attorney; some of the most unreliable evidence in a court case is eyewitness testimony. You may see or hear something, but have no idea of the context of the situation. With that in mind, one simple little comment may have been the catalyst which ultimately became the event and theatrics of 1984. It is well publicized that Card Walker claimed that Walt once referred to Roy E. Disney as his “idiot nephew.” Was Walt making a little joke at his nephew’s expense, was he taking a jab at his brother during one of their squabbles, did he really believe his nephew was an idiot. If he were still with us today, I relatively sure that Card would say he knew Walt well enough to know his intent, but did he, really? I don’t know of any of Walt’s other boys who have made similar claims to have heard Walt make comments like this about Roy E. What I have learned about Walt from my research is that he was not a person to filter his feeling that much. As far as I can tell, if Walt did make reference to his nephew’s intelligence to any of his other boys, they had the discretion not to repeat it to anyone else, a short coming, in my opinion, in Card’s character.
One of the key points I took from “Storming the Magic Kingdom” was Ray Watson acknowledging that Disney had no acknowledged corporate plan in place when he became the Chairman of the Board. Not surprising, given what I’ve address in the previous paragraph, and Walt’s Boys and Roy’s Boy trying continue management as they’d been mentored by their respective co-founder. What I don’t think was understood was that Walt and Roy, as brothers, had (my conjecture) an unspoken and therefore un-communicated plan under which they operated. Even as the rife open and grew between them, this unacknowledged plan allowed the company to continue to flourish. Unfortunately for the boys, this is something that can’t really be mentored. Once Roy passed away, after the opening of the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World, the unique dynamic of the Disney Brothers intuitive relationship at the helm was completely lost.
Don Tatum as CEO and Card Walker as COO, lacking the co-founding brothers relationship and without any real plan, where handicapped from the start. By all accounts, Card became the dominant force in Disney leadership, and with the oft heard mantra, “What would Walt Do?” …established himself as the protector of Walt Disney’s legacy. Unfortunately, in my opinion, in protecting his mentor’s legacy, he lost touch with Walt’s forward looking philosophy. While Walt had, in effect, move on from the studio, to the development of his theme park in the early 50’s, even though the studio was in capable hands he continued to monitor and inject his creative input when needed. If you look at the movies produced by the studio in 50’s and 60’s, under Walt’s guidance, I see offering, that while rather formulaic and holding to his family entertainment values, were in fact evolving as the audiences began to change. A look at movies produced after Walt’s death in 1966, and you find a listing of offering that, while holding true to Walt’s legacy and the Disney brand, failed to evolve with changing family entertainment demands, resulting in declining revenues and hence reductions in offerings, and ultimately the perceived importance of the studio to the overall success of the company.
As much as I don’t like to do it, and find it hard to fault the man, in the noble effort to protect and preserve Walt Disney’s legacy, Card Walker almost destroyed it.
When next we meet, I’ll be revealing how I still think Ron Miller is someone how deserves much more recognition for his contributions to The Walt Disney Company then he has received, and how two rather introverted family members played roles important roles in the outcome of the siege on the Magic Kingdom.
In-between now and then watch for a couple of trip reports for upcoming events.
Have a Disney-rific Day!!!
Your comments or questions are always welcome. If you have a correction or something you think I should look at in my research, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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