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Title: Hightower, Dennis Fowler(1941–) - Business executive, educator, Chronology, The Disney Years, Retirement and Academic Career

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Dennis Fowler Hightower ascended to one of the highest echelons in the U.S. entertainment industry when he was named the president of Walt Disney’s Television and Telecommunications unit in 1995. By climbing the corporate ladder and strategically changing jobs in order to advance his career, Hightower built a solid portfolio of innovative achievements in global marketing, planning, and management which brought remarkable results. Upon retirement from corporate work, Hightower parlayed his decades of leadership skills, global management knowledge, and business acumen into an academic career at the Harvard University Graduate School of Business. As a professor, he invested his energy in training another generation of African American entrepreneurs and corporate executives.

A native of Washington, D.C., Hightower was born to Virginia Fowler Hightower and Marvin William Hightower on October 28, 1941. He spent most of his formative years in the LeDroit Park area of the District of Columbia and graduated from McKinley High School in 1957. At the age of sixteen, Hightower entered nearby Howard University, a historically black university. He completed his studies and graduated with a B.S. in 1962. He was commissioned into the U. S. Army as a second lieutenant on June 15, 1962, through the Howard University ROTC program, in which he was cited as a “Distinguished Military Graduate.”

Hightower served as an officer in the United States Army for eight years. From 1962 to 1965, he was an infantry platoon leader and company commander, and he also served as an assistant S-3 at the battalion level. During six months of 1965, Hightower attended the Army’s military intelligence school at Fort Hollabird, Maryland. He was briefly assigned to the 502nd Military Intelligence Battalion of the Eighth Army for a few months in the winter of 1965–1966, but resumed training at the army’s intelligence school at Fort Hollabird from September 1966 through May 1967.

The following year, Hightower went to the United States Defense Department and served in the Soviet Office. From 1968 through 1969, he was assigned to the 199th Infantry Brigade, and then he was stationed with the 179th Military Intelligence Detachment (MID). When he left the army in 1970, Hightower was twenty-seven years old, held the rank of major, and had served in Vietnam. An army ranger and parachutist, he also earned a Purple Heart, the Vietnam Honor Medal First Class, five army commendation medals with “V”, three air medals, and two bronze stars.

Chronology

1941

Born in Washington, D.C. on October 28

1957

Graduates from McKinley High School

1962

Graduates with B.S. from Howard University; commissioned into the United States Army

1962–69

Trains and serves with Army Intelligence Units; serves in Vietnam

1970

Separates from army with rank of major; accepts position with Xerox Corporation

1972

Leaves Xerox to attend Harvard University Graduate School of Business

1974

Graduates with M.B.A. from Harvard; takes position with McKinsey and Company

1978–81

Holds vice-president positions at General Electric

1982

Takes over as vice-president of corporate planning at Mattel, Inc.

1984–87

Holds executive positions at Richard Reynolds Associates, Inc.

1987–94

Holds vice president and president positions for Walt Disney Company in Europe

1995

Named president of the Walt Disney Company’s Television and Telecommunications

1996

Retires from Disney; joins faculty of Harvard University Graduate School of Business

2000–02

Becomes CEO of European Online Networks

2003

Retires; becomes lecturer; serves as member on various boards of directors

After Hightower left the military, he accepted a managerial position with the Xerox Corporation’s Research and Engineering Group. He was awarded a fellowship and left Xerox after two years to attend the Harvard University Graduate School of Business. Hightower earned his M.B.A. from Harvard in 1974 and was immediately hired by McKinsey and Company, Inc. as a senior associate and engagement manager.

Seizing an opportunity for advancement, Hightower went to work for the General Electric Lighting Business Group in 1978 as manager of operations and planning, and was subsequently promoted to vice-president and general manager of General Electric’s subsidiary in Mexico. When he left General Electric in 1981, Hightower became vice-president of Corporate Planning at Mattel, Inc. Three years later, he was hired by Richard Reynolds Associates, Inc, a consulting firm, where he held the positions of executive director from 1984 to 1986 and managing director of the company’s Los Angeles office from 1986 to 1987.

The Disney Years

In 1987, Hightower made his smartest career move when he accepted the highly coveted position of vice-president of consumer products at the Walt Disney Company division for European, African, and Middle Eastern markets. Hightower and his family moved to Paris, France, where he was promoted to executive vice-president of consumer products in 1989 and then promoted to president of the Walt Disney Company’s European Unit in 1992.

As president of Walt Disney in Europe, Hightower was responsible for increasing the sales of Disney consumer products such as book and magazine publications, character merchandise (also known as Disneyana), licensing, software, and children’s recorded music and sheet music. He was also charged with sales campaigns to promote Disney films, such as The Lion King , and gaining television sponsorship. During his tenure as president of Walt Disney’s European operations, he expanded the company’s 120 magazines and comics, which were published in sixteen languages, to 180 periodicals published in twenty-eight languages in thirty-two countries. Hightower proved that he was the right man for the job by increasing his unit’s sales from $650 million to $4.5 billion. He remained at the helm of Disney Europe from 1987 to 1995, widely viewed as running a highly successful operation.

However, in the mid-1990s, the Walt Disney Company, under the leadership of its chief executive officer, Michael Eisner, started to undergo major staff changes at its executive levels. After a fatal helicopter accident took the life of Frank Wells, Disney’s president in early 1994, his successor, Jeffrey Katzenberg, resigned in August 1994 to form a new entertainment company named Dreamworks with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen. Katzenberg’s departure was rapidly followed by other Disney executives, prompting widespread speculation among entertainment industry analysts and insiders about Disney’s future and its stability.

According to an article in Black Enterprise , Michael Eisner telephoned the fifty-four-year-old Hightower at his Paris residence at midnight on March 8, 1995 and offered him the position of president of Walt Disney Television and Communications. Hightower accepted the promotion and in so doing assumed responsibility for all facets of Disney’s television projects, including network, animation, the Disney Channel, syndicated programs, pay-per-view television, international home video, and interactive media. Disney Television and Telecommunication formed roughly one fourth of the media conglomerate’s $12 billion profits in 1994, and industry analysts were predicting that it was positioned for even more revenue growth.

Hightower’s main tasks were to broaden international production and marketing for all Disney televised products and services. He launched the Disney Channel in Taiwan, the first of its kind beyond the United States coastline, and followed up on his success with Disney Channels in Great Britain and Germany. Hightower also entered into a multi-million dollar cooperative enterprise with telecommunications giants Ameritech, Southwestern Bell, Bell South Corporation, and GTE Corporation. The deal was designed to allow telephones to deliver television programming.

Retirement and Academic Career

Hightower stayed at the helm of Disney’s Television and Telecommunications unit for one year before resigning in the wake of his company’s merger with another entertainment company, Capital Cities. Hightower announced his intention of teaching at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Business and Howard University, both of his alma maters. The transition to university teaching took place in 1996, when Hightower joined Harvard’s faculty as professor of management and senior lecturer. He taught aspiring entrepreneurs for four years and then, in 2000, briefly returned to corporate life as the chief executive officer of Europe Online Networks, a satellite based broadband internet company, located in Luxemburg.

Since 2003, Hightower has capitalized on his thirty years of business leadership by accepting speaking engagements and serving on boards. A limited partner in Washington Baseball Club, he serves on the board of directors of Brite Smile, Inc., the Gillette Company, Pan Am Sat Corporation, Domino’s, Inc., Accenture, Ltd., Northwest, and TJX. He is a trustee of Howard University and chairman of the board of the Andrew Young Center for International Affairs at Morehouse College.

Over the course of his stellar business career, Hightower has received many awards, including the Alumni Achievement Award from Howard University (1984) and the Harvard Business School Alumni Achievement Award (1992). Black Enterprise selected him to be one of the Top 25 Black Managers in Corporate America in 1988. He is married to the former Denia Stukes, and the couple has two children.

African American achievements in U.S. corporations are in the early 2000s more and more noticeable. While many mega corporations, such as American Express, Sears Retail, Young & Rubicam Brands, and the Merrill Lynch Company, have hired African American chief executives, when Dennis Hightower became president of Walt Disney Television and Telecommunications in the 1995, it was a rarity. His achievements in business and at Harvard not only demonstrate intelligence, ambition, and determination, but also a desire to make a difference for African Americans in the corporate setting and signal that blacks should consider the advantages in international opportunities for advancement.

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