Saturday marks the anniversary of one of the most tragic events at Disney. Fifteen years ago on April 3, 1994, Easter Sunday, Michael Eisner had just sat down to dinner at his son's home when the phone rang. The call was from Lucille, Eisner's secretary. Since she was very protective of his time with his family, it was uncharacteristic of her to call on a Sunday evening. These are Eisner's words from his own autobiography:
"'Michael," she said, as soon as I picked up the phone, "Frank is dead. He was just killed in a helicopter accident."
"I felt instantly numb. 'What happened?' I heard myself asking. Lucille had only sketchy details. The helicopter carrying back Frank, two of his friends and a guide from their ski trip had crashed somewhere in the mountains of Nevada. The pilot and all but one passenger had died. Frank's son, Kevin, Clint Eastwood, and several others had been in different helicopters. It seemed impossible to fathom. I told Lucille that I would call her back and took a moment to try to absorb the news. Then I called Jane [Michael's wife] over, so that I could tell her privately, first. 'Frank is dead,' I blurted out. She screamed and everyone at the dinner table jumped up. Jane started crying I told the others what had happened, and said that I had to return home immediately. Jane came with me."
Who was Frank Wells? Many of even Disney's greatest fans really know very little. Yet he was as pivotal to Eisner and The Walt Disney Company as was Roy Disney was to Walt and the company they founded together.
Before coming aboard Disney, Wells had many pursuits and accomplishments. He was a mountain climber, a Phi Beta Kappa, a Rhodes Scholar, ROTC, a runner, WASP, water polo player, a husband, a father of two sons, and an attorney. Moreover, he was vice chairman of Warner Bros. when Disney came to him asking him to take over the company after the hostile takeover attempts back in 1984.
Most people know about Eisner becoming CEO during that time. Few know that Wells joined the company on the same day. Both were sought out by the board of directors as the likely candidates to run the company. The question was, who of the two would be in charge? Would it be Wells, who was a financial guru? Or would it Eisner, who came from the creative side of the business? Here in Eisner's words was how that came to be:
"I will never forget when Roy Disney and Stanley Gold put us together to discuss coming to Disney. Being a little cocky, I suggested I become CEO. Without hesitation Frank said OK. I was stunned. 'Did you say yes?' I asked. He said, 'yup' and that was that. From that moment on I knew he was special."
That didn't mean the board or key shareholders felt the same way. It would take Wells to convince Sid Bass that Eisner was the better man for the job. That was good enough for Bass, who already trusted Wells' judgment enough to let Wells run the company. But if Wells thought Eisner should do it, he would trust Wells' judgment. Then, Wells flew on Roy Disney's airplane to Arizona where Card Walker was on a fishing trip. Walker was the last vote to fall into the Eisner-Wells lineup, ironic because he himself had stood by Walt's side for so many years. Fittingly, it was Walker who nominated the two of them in the final, formal vote. It was a choice that Walker thought even Walt would approve.
That early incident won Eisner's trust in Wells and they would wander in and out of each other's office, sharing any number of confidences. Wells acted with discretion regarding the things he discussed with Eisner. Conversely, when other executives experienced challenges with Eisner, they went to Wells, and Wells promised he would take care of it. Almost invariably he did. On one occasion Jeffrey Katzenberg stated: "Frank was the person that, you know, kept Michael Eisner and I working well with each other. He was the one who handled these issues between us...he was the peacemaker, the marriage counselor."
There is a quote: "Success comes to any person who is willing to give the credit to others." Nothing could be truer about Wells. And perhaps that's why we all know so much about Michael Eisner and so little about Frank Wells. Like Walt before him, Eisner was the one in front of the cameras. Eisner was the one on the cover of major magazines and papers. It was Eisner whose name is aligned with the dramatic changes that came to the Walt Disney Company during the eighties and the early 1990s. But it was their joint efforts, one being creative, and one being fiscal that led to so many amazing and dramatic milestones during that time. Those achievements included:
Essentially, the emergence of Walt Disney Productions from being at the bottom of the studio list to being the top of the entertainment empires as the Walt Disney Company. The years after Wells' departure were decidedly different, but no one could argue that the team of Eisner and Wells were phenomenal and has served to make the Walt Disney Company what it is today.
Today you can find reminders of Frank Wells around the company. The greatest of these was a major office building on the Burbank lot dedicated to his name. But there are other reminders like windows above the Main Street in the various parks, and crates of expedition supplies marked for Wells within the caverns of the Matterhorn. They celebrate one of Wells' greatest loves—the outdoors, and his accomplishment in climbing all but one of the seven highest mountains in the world. He had to back down on Everest. And he took the role of being president of Walt Disney Productions shortly thereafter.
Perhaps Eisner summed up Wells' greatness best in his remarks that he made to a company gathering of 4,000 persons who attended a memorial program paying tribute to his memory:
"You don't become a Phi Beta Kappa or a Rhodes Scholar without reading every great philosopher throughout the ages. From Schopenhauer to Strindberg, from Shakespeare to Stanislavsky, from Auden to Woody Allen, he knew them all—but only a Frank Wells would carry around a white crumpled up piece of paper from a fortune cookie for 30 years. His son pulled it out of his wallet on Thursday. It said, 'Humility is the final achievement.'"
Wells' legacy is that great leaders achieve greatness by their humble gestures and selfless acts.
We celebrate Frank Wells on the 15th anniversary of his passing.
(Send an email to Jeff Kober)
J. Jeff Kober, (@MousePlanetJeff) president of Performance Journeys and CEO of World Class Benchmarking, is also a thought leader on best-in-business practices at the Walt Disney Company. He brings those ideas to organizations via keynotes, seminars, and workshops to organizations around the world. He has authored "The Wonderful World of Customer Service at Disney" as well as a "Disney at Work" series of apps for the iPhone and iPod Touch, available via DisneyatWork.com. You can find out more about his newest book, "Lead With Your Customer: Transform Culture and Brand into World-Class Excellence" at LeadWithYourCustomer.com.