TWELVE years ago, Frank Wells arrived home from work one evening with an unexpected announcement. He told his wife he had decided to quit his job and spend a year climbing the highest mountain on each of the seven continents.
Such a declaration would have been a surprise at any time, but the circumstances made it even more unusual. Wells was almost 50 years old, had no serious climbing experience, and happened to occupy one of the most important jobs in Hollywood: president of Warner Brothers studios.
Although he was assisted by world-class mountaineers, the expedition's practice climbs did not go smoothly. The willowy-thin and gangly Wells caught pneumonia, suffered from altitude sickness and injured himself in a fall. By the time, he and his party had begun scaling Mount Everest in earnest, his reputation for attracting problems was such that no one would agree to accompany him to the top.
Undeterred, he paid two Sherpas to go with him, giving them a year's pay for each of the four days they spent waiting to get to the peak. Eventually, they were forced by bad weather and dwindling supplies to abandon the attempt when he was only 3,000ft from realising a long- held dream to become the oldest man to climb the mountain. He did, however, complete the other six summits.
Exploits of this kind are far from typical of Hollywood executives, but they characterise Frank Wells, president and chief operating officer of the Walt Disney Company. On Sunday, Wells was killed in a helicopter crash in the mountains of north-east Nevada. He was 62 years old and, perhaps unsurprisingly, he was on a heli-skiing expedition.
Most people in the entertainment industry have long paid homage to the success of Michael Eisner, the chairman and chief executive of Disney. But less heed has been paid to the fact that he operated in a close partnership with Wells, and that the two men jointly share the credit for engineering one of the biggest turn-arounds in corporate history.
According to some in Hollywood, Wells might easily have occupied Eisner's chair, but for his lack of vanity. In 1984, Roy Disney, the nephew of Walt, engineered a management coup and decided to draft in new leadership to rescue the ailing empire. He chose Wells, an old college friend with a reputation for being a shrewd entertainment lawyer (he once represented Clint Eastwood) and a tough dealmaker.
Wells, then at Warner Brothers, agreed to sign on. Someone - some say Wells himself, others say Roy Disney - suggested that they should recruit Michael Eisner, the whizz-kid president of Paramount Pictures. Eisner later gave this account of the proceedings: 'They were vague about the job, and vagueness makes me nervous. So I said 'I have to be CEO.' There was a second's delay, and Frank said, 'I agree.' '
What followed was one of the most stable partnerships in an industry notorious for its quick-sand alliances and speedy management divorces. Annual revenues went up in a decade from dollars 1.5bn to dollars 8.5bn, and the company stock value rose by 1,500 per cent. Wells gained a reputation for having a detailed command of the Disney empire's huge and expanding array of activities - including theme parks, television, publishing, records, retailing, hotels, and, of course, movies.
During his tenure, the Disney studio enjoyed a series of box-office successes, including Pretty Woman (1990) and Sister Act (1992) and - perhaps more importantly - restored its reputation for superb animated movies, including Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Aladdin (1993). The only cloud on the horizon was the continuing heavy losses at Euro Disney, in which the company had a 49 per cent stake - a project in which Wells played a large role.
Although success made Wells into an enormously wealthy man - in 1992 he made dollars 60m by selling Disney stock - he was known for his loathing of airs and graces, and was unusually popular in a town which is not generous with its affections. He refused an executive parking space, and once erupted into anger when he found out he had been allocated one. The late Steven Ross, chairman of Time-Warner, dubbed him 'the company socialist'.
Whilst that label was a joke, Wells - a native Californian - took politics seriously, and was occasionally rumoured to entertain ambitions to run for office, possibly as a US senator or for governor of California. He was a Democrat, one of the first big players in the state to come out in support of Bill Clinton's campaign for president, and a keen contributor to environmental causes.
Whether a life of political glad- handing would ever have suited him is uncertain. In the end, he was an adventurer, even from an early age. As a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University in 1955 he and a friend set off to fly from Britain to Cape Town in a single-engined aircraft and crash landed in East Africa, but escaped unhurt. On Sunday, fate was not so kind.
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