Andy Bird: Mister Mouse of Warrington

Andy Bird, president of Walt Disney International, started his career as a gofer for Timmy Mallett. Raymond Snoddy meets the man now responsible for a media assault on the Far East, and on a new generation of technologies
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The Independent Online

ndy Bird has had a large handful of stardust sprinkled on his career. A "kid from Warrington" who was planning to study medicine when he wasn't dreaming of playing for his beloved Manchester United, has ended up on the board at Burbank, California, president of Walt Disney International.

Bird is responsible for increasing the presence of the Magic Kingdom around the world in everything from television channels and movies to theme parks and consumer products, and by using every technology available.

"I never ever think of what I am going to do. I don't have a game plan. I just want to do whatever I am asked to do the best that I can, and I have got to have fun. If I don't have fun I have learned there is no point in doing it," he says. Bird reports directly to Bob Iger, the new President and Chief Executive Officer of the Walt Disney Company. The Briton has the job that Iger once held before ultimately succeeding the former CEO Michael Eisner in controversial circumstances in March.

The task Iger has given Bird is remarkably simple. The man who describes himself as "an accidental executive" has to increase Disney's international earnings from 35 per cent of the company's total revenue to 50 per cent. The percentages disguise enormous numbers. The latest annual Disney figures show revenues of more than $30bn and operating profits of $4.5bn. Bird, who lives near Malibu Beach in Santa Monica, will have to meet his challenge in the face of the continuing expansion of Disney's US businesses.

But it's not all hard numbers. There is, indeed, plenty of fun too. He was in London earlier this month - along with Charles and Camilla, Julie Walters and Jodie Kidd - for the British premiere of the Chronicles of Narnia at the Royal Albert Hall.

"It was very, very well received. It was very well crafted and I think it will do good for us and good for the industry with talk about movie attendances down," says Bird, talking in Disney's London headquarters in a room filled, somewhat bizarrely, with Muppet Show memorabilia.

Premieres and show parties are fun, but audience numbers are also excellent. In its first three days after opening in British cinemas, Narnia took more than £8 million at the box office - a record for the company, and the game of the movie is already in the charts across all formats.

There was more fun in Moscow on Saturday as another of Bird's enterprises came to fruition in the Kremlin Palace, of all places. Two thousand guests attended a Cinderella Ball as Disney became the first US company to be invited into the Kremlin. The ghosts of commissars past must have been deeply shocked as little Russian princesses arrived to mingle with the Disney variety -- not just Cinderella and Prince Charming but all the others such as Snow White, Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas and Sleeping Beauty.

"We thought, for the first major thing we have done in the Russian market, we would hold a Princess Ball in the Kremlin covered in snow with guests learning to be princesses," says Bird.

Snow White and Cinderella have been re-released on DVD, and Disney regards what it terms as its "princess line" of characters as a very important commercial asset. Cinema exhibition in Russia is also a top-ten market for Disney.

Bird, a former producer for Piccadilly Radio in Manchester and children's-programme maker for TV-am, has one of the most challenging jobs in Disney. A recent Sunday Times survey of the most influential Brits in the United States placed the 42-year old Bird at number 13, just ahead of another Disney Brit, Andrew Mooney (born in Whitburn, Scotland), the chairman of Disney consumer products.

"I work along with my peers who run the businesses. While they are very much focused on product and their particular line of business, my job is to take it to an international scale, country by country," says Bird, who worked for Turner Broadcasting for 10 years before joining Disney. "I have to take a much broader view of the assets of the Walt Disney Company in any particular country and drive an overall strategy and figure out where the opportunities are for us."

Opportunities include everything from digital terrestrial and interactive television to the latest game machines. He has already fallen in love with one of the latest devices, Sony's PlayStation Portable (PSP), which combines the ability to watch films and television programmes with storing the latest games and up to 50,000 songs. "I now watch most of my movies on my PSP and through it, ironically, I have got into games. I was never into gaming and through this I have reverse-engineered myself through getting it to watch movies," says Bird, who is kept up to speed on the latest developments by two young sons.

Already the device has turned into a business opportunity for Disney. Episodes of two of the company's television series, Lost and Desperate Housewives, are being released on PSP a day after they air in the US. Research shows that even dedicated followers of a series usually only catch about half the episodes. The new service, at $1.99 a download, allows viewers to catch up. "It's interesting how it's changing consumer habits" says Bird. It's an example of Disney's approach to new technology. The firm does not see itself as a traditional media company, of the sort now worrying itself sick about the impact of the internet, even though its owns traditional media businesses such as the ABC network and the ESPN television sports business.

"We are a content company and we are about the consumer, so creativity is at the core of the company. But we are platform agnostic and we are technology agnostic," Bird explains.

Disney will use any conduit to reach the consumer with its content. Bird is very interested in observing consumers in order to learn how they think, but he often does things in a typically intuitive way.

One of the first things he did when he arrived in London for the Narnia premiere was to go to a local pub and sit with a newspaper just listening to what people were talking about. It is something he has done throughout his career. He has a lot of time to observe consumers all over the world because he spends around half his time away from home.

For Bird one of the great things about the emerging markets such as Russia and India is that they move immediately to the latest technologies. "The first phones these guys get are the top-end digital phones. There are no legacy issues," he says.

Bird is tall and slim and animated and remarkably frank about himself and his good fortune. There is still more than a hint of Warrington and King's School, Macclesfield, in his accent. If you want to go all the way back in search of explanations, then a Piccadilly DJ called Phil Wood is as responsible as anyone for Bird ending up in Los Angeles. He listened to Wood regularly while studying physics, chemistry and biology A-levels in the hope of going to Sheffield to study medicine.

"I fell in love with radio. Phil Wood had a 'most beautiful Eve' who brought in his tea every afternoon. I wrote in and asked 'Can I bring in your tea when Eve's on holiday?'" Bird recalls.

In his spare time, he started answering the phones for Timmy Mallett(later to be known as a luridly-dressed kids TV presenter), who was working at Piccadilly. Bird then changed his A-levels to English, history and economics and went to Newcastle University so that he could be in the audience for the North-East-based radical Channel 4 music show The Tube. When he left for university, another Warrington kid took over from him at Piccadilly - Chris Evans.

Bird only ever presented one overnight radio programme which convinced him that his skills lay in production - although at a later stage in his accidental career, working for the early cable channel Music Box, he did read the music news to camera.

He brought Chris Evans to London to work on Radio Radio, an innovative radio service networked overnight from London and featuring the likes of Jonathan Ross, Johnny Walker and Ruby Wax. Then it was off to TV-am and Timmy Mallett's children's programme Wacaday before another piece of innovation - working with Chris Evans on British Satellite Broadcasting's music channel The Power Station. "Chris was presenting and I was producing this two-hour daily music show on this channel that no-one watched really," he says.

Bird was head-hunted for Turner (TBS) and took their Cartoon Network across Europe, ending up as president of TBS International. He is coy about rumours that he once tried to persuade Turner to buy Manchester United at a time when it would have only cost a few millions. Ted Turner, who has bought baseball teams, apparently couldn't get his mind around the fact that it wasn't a franchise or that the team could get relegated. Two years ago, when he reached 40, Bird decided to stand down from TBS and do nothing at all except "connect" with his boys.

"Literally within 10 days of doing this I got a call from head-hunters. Even when I agreed to join Disney I had three months off doing a lot of nothing. I just drove my kids to school and things like that and had a holiday over Christmas."

In between answering the phone for Timmy Mallett and becoming president of Walt Disney International Bird has watched and listened and learned. "I have been very fortunate being close to enigmatic and interesting and very, very smart personalities such as Ted Turner and [the former TV-am chief executive] Bruce Gyngell," admits Bird. He says the story of his success is one of trial and error, while seeking to avoid as many errors as possible. Bird is convinced that having a detailed game-plan doesn't make much sense in current, fluid, business conditions. "I don't think you can be flexible enough. In today's world it's about being open to opportunities," he says.

One opportunity clearly involves possible expansion in the UK, but the obvious target of ITV can effectively be ruled out both on price and by the fact that Disney is more interested in content than buying broadcasters. UK independent production companies are also coming with fancy price-tags attached these days. The UK is, however, the world leader in interactive television and Disney has bought a small British company, Mindseye, an interactive TV developer.

"I am interested in the new media area, the games space, the mobile space, the console games space and then the online games space and how they are converging together," says Bird. His children will soon, he predicts, be playing online games with contemporaries all over world - and some of it will be branded Disney product.

The success of digital terrestrial in the UK is also something that has attracted his attention, and Disney has launched the ABC1 channel here. As digital terrestrial spreads to other countries there could be opportunities for the ABC 1 channel to spread on a country-by-country basis.

The Disney Channel itself is strong internationally, but still hasn't got into mainland China yet - although Desperate Housewives has. "The reality is that syndicating our programming and sending it to Central China Television and other broadcasters is actually more impactful because our real business in China is consumer products," Bird argues.

Talks have been opened about building a Disney theme park in Shanghai, but no agreement has yet been reached and it is probably a project for the next decade rather than this.

Hong Kong Disneyland opened in September and Bird is pleased with it both in levels of attendance and appreciation. "The biggest attraction in Hong Kong Disneyland is the ability to take photographs with the characters and the fireworks above the castle every evening," says Bird observing another cultural difference in behaviour.

The executive is confident about Disney's performance at the cinema box-office this year with a strong slate that, apart from Narnia includes the animated films Cars and Chicken Little.

For consumer products the challenge is increasingly to move beyond the Disney stores and form closer and closer relationships with the big international supermarket groups such as Wal-Mart, Tesco and Carrefour. Bird's colleague Mooney wants to get Disney products sold where consumers go to buy their milk.

For Bird the overall strategy involves looking at the world from two distinct perspectives.

While Disney has to continue to grow and invent new products for the developed markets of Europe and Japan, the job is very different in countries such as China, Russia and India.

"In my mind what we are doing there is shelf-space which we are going to build over the next five years and start reaping the reward from five to 10 years out. It's about getting the infrastructure installed and getting the Disney brand well positioned there," he says.

The California-based Brit sees the situation as rather like getting ready for a good surfing wave. The economic wave and the infrastructure wave in the emerging markets is going to happen at a frighteningly fast pace.

For Disney - and Bird - the next few years are going to be about creating more local content that is going to be more locally relevant, and more closely connected to the consumer, and using every available technology.

"We have to produce the best branded entertainment for any device, anywhere, whenever anyone wants it. If we do that then we are going to do very well and that's what we are positioning ourselves to do," says the Disney International president.

Bird's two years at Disney have coincided with huge rows over the state of the company and challenges to the elevation of Bob Iger to the throne of the Magic Kingdom. Bird insists that those inside the organisation paid little attention to the "external noise" and just got on with their jobs.

"We all know what we are doing, and while all of this stuff was going on everyone who runs the business was concentrating on the knitting. Now the noise dies and people are saying: 'Wow, I didn't realise they were doing all that.' It's a funny old game," he says.

Wouldn't it also be fun if against all the odds Andy Bird were to end up as the first Brit running Disney? After all, that's what happened to the last president of Disney International, Bob Iger. And he does seem to have near-magical luck.

"It would be fun but something that is highly unlikely and something I never think of," he replies modestly. But for the man who has risen from answering the phones for Timmy Mallett to one of the top jobs in global media, anything is possible.