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"Working Together: Why Great Partnerships Succeed" pays tribute to Disney Legend Frank Wells

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"Working Together: Why Great Partnerships Succeed" pays tribute to Disney Legend Frank Wells

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You remember Michael Eisner, right? That infamous micro-manager who was in charge of The Walt Disney Company during an unprecedented period of growth. When - within one twenty year period -- the Mouse House moved from being this film & theme park company that was worth $1.8 billion to becoming a global media empire valued at $80 billion.

Well, Eisner didn't do that all by himself. During his first 10 years at Disney, he had the help of Frank Wells. Who - as Michael recalls in his fascinating new book, "Working Together: Why Great Partnerships Succeed " (HarperBusiness, September 2010) -

... (whenever) I threw an idea out there, Frank would instantly become the idea's biggest cheerleader. A concept for an animated movie? Frank would instantly decide it was a winner. Should we build more hotels at Disneyworld in Florida? Let's build a dozen. At one point Sid Bass and I were discussing whether I should host The Wonderful World of Disney. I was tentative. I even asked Barry Diller, and he warned me my life would never be the same. But Frank's response: "Absolutely! The company needs a public rudder."

Working Together by Michael Eisner book cover
Copyright 2010 HarperCollins.
All rights reserved

Okay. Sure. "Working Together" is ostensibly about ten magical partnerships. With Eisner offering his insights as to why teams like Warren Buffett & Charlie Munger of Berkshire Hathaway, Steve Rubell &  Ian Schrager from Studio 54 or Joe Torre & Don Zimmer of the New York Yankees accomplished such great things. But when you get right down to it, this new HarperBusiness book is really a valentine to Frank Wells.

Eisner's obvious affectionate for his late partner (who was tragically killed in a helicopter crash in April of 1994) comes through loud and clear in "Working Together." Whether it's tales about this team's early, early days. Where ...

On our fifth day on the job at Disney ... Frank hit his head on every crossbeam on the inside of the Matterhorn theme park ride as we explored Disneyland.

A tribute to Frank Wells in Disneyland's Matterhorn ride
The Frank Wells tribute that the Imagineers added to the Matterhorn after this
Disney executive's tragic death in April of 1994

... or talking about Wells' many quirks. Like how he'd offer you a ...

... hearty hello [during] a 2:00 a.m. phone call ([Frank] was notorious for "forgetting" time differences when he traveled, but easy to forgive because of the excitement that always accompanied the call).

Or how you really had to keep an eye on your food when Wells was around. Because ...

Michael Eisner, Roy E. Disney and Frank Wells at a black tie affair
Michael Eisner, Roy E. Disney and Frank Wells at the Variety Club's "Big Hearts"
awards ceremony in May 1987. Photo by Jim Smeal / Ron Gallela
/ WireImage.com. All rights reserved

It's inevitable in any work environment, and certainly all the more so in Hollywood: there are always going to be people working for you upset about something. At Disney, they went to Frank, and he would take them to lunch and find a solution to the problem. (He'd also eat off their plates. Seriously. Frank was the quickest and most voracious eater I've met, and had no qualms about eating off someone's plate, even if he barely knew them.)

You know what else is great about "Working Together: Why Great Partnerships Succeed"? That the Michael Eisner who wrote this book (along with Aaron Cohen) was in a humble, reflective mood.

Don't believe me? Then check out this passage:

Mike Ovitz and Michael Eisner Disney 1995
Mike Ovitz and Michael Eisner. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

In  the years following Frank's death, Disney continued to grow, most significantly through our acquisition of Capital Cities and ABC and ESPN. But it was never the same without Frank, and I was never able to find another partner quite like him. Frank Wells and I had ten great years together. I had smoothed the way for him to be successful, just as he had smoothed the way for me. We strategized about how to keep our executives happy and our critics at bay. The years I worked with him were markedly different from the years I did not have Frank Wells as a partner. I'll never be as good politically inside a company or as effective at handling a sensitive personnel situation as Frank Wells and I were together. Frank was a better corporate politician than I am. He handled Stanley Gold and Roy Disney the way the great Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel handles the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Alone, when Frank was not my partner, I stumbled politically. But when we were together, we kept the ship sailing even in rough waters.

Because Hollywood always loves a good story, the tales of the other partnerships I tried have been told before. Jeffrey Katzenberg, who had done terrific work alongside me for nearly two decades at both Paramount and Disney, left the company because he didn't get Frank's job and after Roy Disney demanded he be fired. A year later, we hired Michael Ovitz, the head of Creative Artists (Associates), who had been a business friend in Los Angeles for years, to be Frank's replacement. Fourteen months later, he was gone after the arrangement failed.

You see what I'm saying? This is a Michael Eisner that we haven't seen before. One who freely admits that sometimes (in the case of projects like Disney California Adventure) he played it too safe ...

Roy E. Disney, Michael Eisner and Mickey Mouse at the grand opening of DCA 2001
Roy E. Disney, Michael Eisner and Mickey Mouse at the Grand Opening of Disney
California Adventure in February 2001. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

I was relatively conservative when my butt was in the line, while Frank was much more of the "Let's swing for the bleachers" type of guy. He was off the wall compared to me (even though, as I said earlier, nobody believed that).

Now, the most important thing that goes into creative success is having the people who can come up the great ideas. But the next most important thing is often overlooked: having people who will enable those great ideas, and support those creative people - manage the creativity with real economic foresight. It's not an easy thing to do - in every instance, it is a lot safer to say no, and it takes a special and gutsy kind of leader to say yes. That leader alongside me, that coach and that cheerleader at Disney, was Frank. Together with the countless movie and television show ideas and theme parks that he helped push forward, he supported me on smaller but memorable decisions as well, like the use of top-quality architects for new hotels at our theme parks and other projects, and moving Disney animation into the computer age at a large expense. He also was passionate about our compulsive desire for corporate synergy, even having the audacity to name a hockey team after one of our movies (The Mighty Ducks). Frank was the one who helped push, pull, and enable all those ideas, managing the managers of all of creative and financial in the boxes of our projects. He was the catalyst who found a way to bring them to life. And he was thrilled to do it.

And speaking of the Mighty Ducks: Did you ever wonder why Disney created that NHL team only to then sell it off? Well, here. Let Michael explain Mickey's flirtation with being a major sports team owner. Which began in 1996 when Disney bought the Anaheim Angels.

The Anaheim Angels parade thru Disneyland
The Anaheim Angels parade through Disneyland after their 2002 World Series win.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Gene Autry had been talking about moving the team, and as a company, we wanted to make sure they stayed in Anaheim alongside Disneyland. We also began a professional hockey team - the Mighty Ducks - around the same time to play in a completed arena that the city council had built with no prospect of a team. On one hand we wanted to support Orange County, but we didn't want to enter sports ownership with promises to the community that we couldn't keep ... After we won the only World Series in Angel franchise history in 2002 against San Francisco, and the same year got to the Stanley Cup Final with the Mighty Ducks, we decided to sell the teams with one condition: the new owners couldn't move them to another city. Owning ESPN and ABC Sports was our primary sports business. Owning teams was, conversely, a distraction and no-win situation. If we spent wildly on the team, we'd be applauded by the fans and would be the darling of the Orange County Register and the Los Angeles Times sports section, but excoriated by our shareholders and the business section of the same papers.

There are lots of great Disney-related stories to be found in "Working Together: Why Great Partnership Succeed."  Like what Brian Grazer told Mouse House managers back in 1983 when it appeared that a mermaid movie that  Warren Beatty was thinking of making might beat "Splash" to the big screen.

"If you want to get in a race with them," Grazer told the Disney executives, "there is no way their movie will get to the market before ours does. I will live here if I have to - we have a great script, and we will do it."

Poster from Disney's movie 'Splash'
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

But - in the end - this HarperBusiness book is Michael Eisner's way of honoring Frank Wells. There's a narrative thread that runs through "Working Together" that always circles back on Wells and the lessons that Eisner learned while working with him. To this day, Michael seems to marvel at Frank's people skills. After all, this was a guy who genuinely ...

... liked helping people, and he was a great problem-solver. (Wells) had to fire (Disney's) general counsel - and the next day the guy asked Frank to be best man at his wedding.

And to Michael's point of view, what makes this story that much more amazing is that Wells ...

Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Frank Wells, Michael Eisner with Goofy and Donald Duck
Mickey, Minnie, Frank, Michael, Goofy and Donald. Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

... never originally intended on staying at Disney more than five or ten years as president, but as (Wells) put it, he was just having too much fun (to leave).

You'll have fun too if you pick up a copy of "Working Together: Why Great Partnerships Succeed." Which pretends to be this book full of great corporate insights, but - in its heart of hearts - it's really an affectionate tribute to this late great Disney Legend.

Your thoughts?

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  • I think Frank Wells picked the perfect time to die. Had he lived, there was no way that Disney could sustain the geometric growth they had in the early to mid-90s. But since he died, everyone can blame the Wells-less Eisner for what happened afterward.

  • Frank Wells had a piece of paper that looked like a fortune from a cookie in his wallet that he proudly showed me one day. It said "humility is the final achievement".  I loved that guy.

  • If it wasn't for my complete loathing of Michael Eisner I would purchase this book. Shame.

  • Bummer! One of my career goals was to write this book! Only I wanted the emphasis not only with Michael and Frank, but with Walt and Roy, as well as Lasseter and Catmull. Never thought Michael himself would beat me to the punch. Oh well!

    Thanks for sharing. I look forward to reading the book anyway.

  • I think Frank Wells would have made anyone better.  Does the book offer any insight into what made Michael Eisner part of the great "team"?  The Eisner portrayed in Disney War doesn't paint that picture.

    "He handled Stanley Gold and Roy Disney the way the great Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel handles the Los Angeles Philharmonic."

    Is this quote out of context?  Does he offer any background on why he thought Stanley Gold and Roy Disney needed to be "handled"?  As it stands, it sounds like he's still bitter about the whole thing.

    I recognize all the good things that Michael Eisner did for the Disney company, along with the bad. I also admit I wasn't there for any of the things I've read about that I'm basing my opinions on, and know that Frank Wells, Stanley Gold, and Roy Disney (and the rest of the unnamed people who made the company great) also made their mistakes, too.

    I would love to read a book about successful partnerships, I'm just not interested in hearing about Michael Eisner's perspective on them at all... Frank Wells', yeah, you bet.

  • My deal with Eisner was his inability to see that by the end of his regime, he was just as entrenched and status quo as Disney has been when he arrived and shook up some things. From formula films to being timid or downright frugal in the theme parks, it was hard to accept Eisner with a straight face at the end when he talked about being as devoted to innovation as he was in 1984.

  • Frank Wells was the buffer between Eisner's and Katzenberg's egos. When he died, Eisner's swelling ego burst forth like the Incredible Hulk. Whatever good he did Disney was pretty much undone with those damn cheapquels, his penny-pinching with the parks, his near-loss of Pixar and his boneheaded purchase of the Muppets. He was a laughingstock by the time he was kicked out. Unfortunately, his successor, Robert Iger, hardly seems better. If my family didn't have a history with Walt I'd have sold my Disney stock by now.

  • I've recently watched Waking Sleeping Beauty and I was really surprised to learn of everything Frank Wells and Michael Eisner did together that turned Disney into a success. They were really like Walt and Roy, in terms of balancing creativeness and management. Frank was always the mediator between arguing corporate figures. He settled creative differences between Eisner and Katzenberg and it was thanks to him that the company didn't fall apart. There will never be another Frank Wells.

  • Thanks for bringing up Eisner, Jim. While you're at it, why not give me a paper cut and pour lemon juice on it?

  • Gigglesock, you stay out of this!

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