Great Business Ideas: Find Out How Disney Does It

Great Ideas for your Small Business: Find Out How Disney Does It

No one is surprised when an entrepreneur heads to Harvard, New York University, or USC for a management training program, but eyebrows raise when they sign up for a course at Walt Disney World’s Disney Institute in Orlando, Florida. More than 60,000 people a year attend these classes, which offer a behind-the-scenes look at the Disney management philosophy. In the past five years, small business owners with fewer than fifty employees represented 44 percent of attendees, say Disney officials.

“Walt Disney was probably one of the premier entrepreneurs of all time,” said Valerie Oberle, former vice president of Disney University Professional Development Programs. In fact, Disney’s company was started in a garage, with next to no capital.

Oberle said Disney began sharing its management philosophy eleven years ago, after the company was profiled in Tom Peters’ In Search of Excellence (Warner Books; 1988). From that point on, she said, business owners and managers were eager to find out how Disney managed the 40,000 people in its Florida parks alone. People pay about $2,500 to attend a three-and-a-half-day course in leadership, people management, orientation design, and quality service. Disney characters are heavily used throughout the course.

“Before the Disney course, we hired people if they were breathing,” said Michael Collands, chief executive officer of Perfect Response, a customer service company based in Willoughby, Ohio. “Now we screen thoroughly.”

Collands, who also has an office in San Diego County, has taken three Disney courses so far. His company, which helps auto dealers improve customer service, once had a tough time recruiting and retaining good employees. Based on what he learned at Disney, Collands now requires all job candidates to read a company newsletter before they are handed a job application. After reading about company policies and requirements, Collands said 15 percent leave without applying. Those who are eventually hired go through an intense one-and-a-half-day orientation.

“Our morale is up 2,000 percent,” said Collands. “Every- one has pulled together. Before, employees took my ideas and executed them if I stood over them; now they take my great ideas and make them ten times better.”

Collands, who has thirty employees and annual sales of about $3 million, said he registered for the Disney program instead of a university course because all of the Disney employees he’s met seem happy. “Most people will tell you what their job is when you ask them, but when you ask Disney employees, there’s a twinkle in their eyes,” he said.

Lamar Berry, chairman of New Orleans–based International Marketing Systems, says he sends hundreds of clients a year to Disney University. Berry also works with Disney U. officials to develop special programs for his clients.

“There is a tremendous benefit to going to an icon and seeing how that culture is maintained,” said Berry. He said it’s easy for his clients to adapt Disney’s culture to their businesses in other industries, including hospitals and oil companies.

Bob Van Dyk, chief executive officer of Van Dyk Health Care Inc. in Ridgewood, New Jersey, said he first attended a Disney program when he was working for a large, nonprofit health care company. He said he liked the way Disney employees feel “like a big family.” “After hearing about Disney’s approach to management, I realized how applicable it was to my own business,” said Van Dyk, who has attended three Disney programs.

Since then, he’s gone out on his own to operate two nursing homes with 220 employees and sales of $9 million.

Other entrepreneurial management programs to con- sider:

  • Harvard Business School’s Owner/President Management Program. This nine-week, full-time residential program consists of three three-week segments. Participants take one session a year for three years. The fee is $17,750 per session. Harvard Business School spokesman Jim Aisner said about 2,400 people have gone through the program in recent years.
  • New York University, Stern School of Business: Executive Development Programs. For information, write to Stern School of Business, 44 West 4th St., Suite 10-66, New York, NY 10012
  • University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, Executive Development.
  • University of California, Los Angeles. For information, write to UCLA Management Development Program, 110 Westwood Plaza, Suite C-305, Los Angeles, CA 90095.