Walt Disney Co. yesterday (March 13) named current company president Robert Iger to succeed chief executive Michael Eisner, who will step down a year before he planned.

Walt Disney Co. yesterday (March 13) named current company president Robert Iger to succeed chief executive Michael Eisner, who will step down a year before he planned.

The company said that Eisner -- once the highest paid chief executive in the United States -- will end his more than 20-year reign on Sept. 30, and turn over control of the vast entertainment conglomerate to his preferred successor, a former TV weatherman who worked his way to the top of Disney.

However, two former directors who led a 2004 shareholder protest, including namesake Walt Disney's nephew Roy, were furious with the board's choice, saying investors had been "conned." They also accused the board of failing to find major outside candidates.

Eisner began his reign in glory, revitalizing a company whose business had turned flat. But he now leaves against a backdrop of embarrassing lawsuits from former Disney executives and a bitter shareholder protest that saw a 45% vote against him at the 2004 annual meeting.

The 63-year-old Eisner will remain on the Disney board until the company's 2006 annual meeting.

Disney chairman and former U.S. senator George Mitchell said: "We definitely had choices -- we made the right choice."

On a conference call, Mitchell told reporters that Iger deserved partial credit for the company's recent stock market gains and financial improvement after Disney hit a rut in the late 1990s.

Mitchell also said the process was thorough and the vote for Iger was unanimous despite "vigorous discussion" by directors.

Iger has been president and chief operating officer of the company since January 2000. His career at ABC started in 1974 in New York as a studio supervisor. In 1996, he joined Disney after the company acquired Capital Cities/ABC.

He is credited with helping turn around ABC and managing much of Disney's day-to-day operations, as well as a new focus on technology and expansion into Asia, where Disney is building one theme park and considering others.

The timing of Sunday's announcement came sooner than expected since the board had set a June 2005 target date to find a new chief. Eisner himself had said he would step down as CEO in September 2006.

-- Reuters