Hightower, Dennis F. 1941–
Dennis F. Hightower 1941–
Entertainment company executive
Dennis F. Hightower was once called “the Colin Powell of corporate America,” referring to his high-profile success with the Walt Disney Company. From 1987 to the present, Hightower has been a key player at Disney, first as the entertainment company’s director of consumer products for Europe, Africa, and Asia, and later as president of the important Television and Telecommunications division. He presided over an unprecedented boom in products sales overseas and has helped to prepare the Disney Company for a future when interactive entertainment and other shows will be available over telephone lines. For Hightower, the years at Disney form only a part of a distinguished career in business, a career he has forged—so he told Black Enterprise —“by leveraging my basic intellect and ability to solve problems.”
A native of Washington, D.C., Hightower graduated from McKinley High School when he was only 16. He entered Howard University the same year, earning a bachelor of science degree in 1962. What followed was not a swift rise through the corporate structure, but rather a long period of military service in Vietnam, where he was elevated to the rank of major at 27 after having earned numerous medals—including the Purple Heart. Hightower was an Army Ranger and senior parachutist whose commendations included two Bronze Stars. He left the service in 1970 and returned to the private sector, taking a job with the Xerox Corporation’s research and engineering group.
“What gets my adrenaline going is the challenge of learning something new and different,” Hightower noted in Black Enterprise. In keeping with this philosophy, Hightower left Xerox in 1972 to accept a scholarship to the Harvard Business School. He earned a master’s degree in business administration in 1974 and began to seek industry positions that would not only highlight his talents, but also give him ample opportunity to learn more himself. His first post-Harvard job was with McKinsey & Company, an international management consulting firm. Hightower spent four years at McKinsey, during which time he learned “how to problem-solve … how to put myself on the line to come up with what my client should do,” he explained in Black Enterprise .
From McKinsey & Company Hightower moved to General Electric, where he worked in the lighting group in both the United States and Mexico. His next challenge came in 1981, when he was recruited by Mattel, Inc., a major manufacturer of toys and games, to be the company’s vice president of corporate planning. At the time Mattel was struggling unsuccessfully to achieve a presence in the video game market. Hightower told Black Enterprise that from his days at Mattel he learned the important lesson of “making sure you know what you do best and then do that the best.”
In 1987 Hightower accepted a position that capitalized
At a Glance…
Born Dennis Fowler Hightower, October 28, 1941, in Washington, DC; son of Marvin and Virginia (Fowler) Hightower; married Denia Stukes; children: Dennis F,, Jr., Dawn D. Education: Howard University, B.S., 1962; Harvard Business School, M.B.A., 1974.
Xerox Corporation Research and Engineering Group, manager, 1970-72; McKinsey & Co., Inc., senior associate and engagement manager, 1974-78; General Electric Lighting Business Group, manager, 1978-79; General Electric Mexico Lighting Affiliate, vice president and general manager, 1979-81; Mattel Inc., vice president of corporate planning, 1981-84; Russell Reynolds Associates Inc., executive director, 1984-86, managing director and manager of Los Angeles office, 1986-87; Walt Disney Company, Inc., Los Angeles, CA, president of consumer products division for Europe, Asia, and Africa, 1987-95, president of Television and Telecommunications Division, 1995-96, consultant, 1996—, Military service: U.S. Army, 1962-70, became major, awarded 2 Bronze Stars, 3 air medals, Joint Service Commendation medal 1st class, Purple Heart, and Vietnam Honor medal.
Selected awards: Alumni Achievement Awards from Howard University, 1984, and Harvard University, 1992; Corporate Leadership Award from The Edges Group, 1992.
on his global marketing expertise. He was tapped by the Walt Disney Company to head the European consumer products division, and he was given the task of expanding markets for Disney products in Europe, Africa, and Asia. From a base in Paris Hightower set about improving retail sales of Disney products of every sort, from clothing and toys to publications. He was quite successful. During his tenure in the European division, Disney’s sales there increased from $650 million to $4.5 billion, and the publishing wing grew from 120 magazines in 16 languages to 180 magazines and comic series in 27 languages. Hightower recalled in Black Enterprise that the international aspects of the job proved particularly challenging. “I was managing a mini United Nations at work,” he said. “I had to find common themes to unite people around a mission or objective.”
Major personnel changes at the Walt Disney Company paved the way for Hightower’s return from Europe in 1995. In the spring of that year, Richard H. Frank, the longtime head of the company’s crucial Television and Telecommunications wing, stepped down after having held the position for a decade. Entertainment industry insiders were astonished when Disney chairman Michael D. Eisner named Hightower to succeed Frank. Hightower was viewed as an unexpected choice for the job of running the division that accounts for more than a quarter of Disney’s total yearly revenues. The Television and Telecommunications unit has under its umbrella everything from network TV shows such as Home Improvement and Empty Nest to animated television programs such as Darkwing Duck that can be syndicated, as well as the Disney Channel, syndication of Disney shows and movies, and the burgeoning home video and interactive media products. Hightower, by his own admission, was by no means a “couch potato” familiar with the wealth of Disney’s TV offerings.
Asked in Black Enterprise if he thought his lack of television expertise would be a hindrance, Hightower responded: “I come with a different set of eyes and a different perspective.” He immediately put that perspective into play by seeking to expand European markets for Disney’s television shows-and inaugurating Disney Channels in England and elsewhere. Hightower also explored possibilities for Disney’s future representation in the realm of interactive media. Just a month after his arrival in the Telecommunications wing, in April of 1995, he helped to negotiate a contract with several telephone companies in the American South and West to provide interactive and conventional television shows via phone lines. This ground-breaking venture, Hightower told Black Enterprise, will enable Disney to “take part in the technology revolution [and] … create and industry standard.”
Hightower’s position as president of Walt Disney Television and Telecommunications made him one of the most important black executives in the entertainment industry. As for his status as a role model, Hightower admitted that his busy schedule—which does not include time for breakfast or lunch—left him little time to ponder his wider significance. “I am who I am, and more often am judged on what I do and what I deliver,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s more like, ‘Oh, by the way, he happens to be an African American.’”
On the other hand, Hightower has addressed the issue of expanding the corporate horizons for African Americans, who, he concedes, still face barriers and “glass ceilings.” He described himself in USA Today as one of a few top black executives who “sort of passed by the gatekeeper.” He amplified that statement in quotes from the Washington Post.” In the United States, it’s still the case that people tend to see color before capability, and as individuals, we are often underestimated, undervalued and, at worst, marginalized,” he said. “Who [among African Americans] has not experienced that moment of hesitation when walking into an executive office in the United States and the body language says that we have to prove ourselves all over again”
Like Colin Powell, Hightower may be in a position to change those white perceptions in the future. Since stepping down as president of Disney’s Television and Telecommunications wing in April of 1996, he has served as a consultant to Disney as well as returning to the academic arena for the purpose of helping a new generation of entrepreneurs. “I’ve always had someone who stretched me and convinced me to do more than I thought I was capable of, “Hightower concluded in Black Enterprise . “I’ve always tried to provide that same kind of mentorship.”
Black Enterprise, June 1995, p. 30; December 1995, pp. 58-62.
Los Angeles Times, March 14, 1995, p. Dl.
New York Times, March 13, 1995, pp. Dl, D6.
USA Today, March 15, 1995, p. B2.
Washington Post, October 29, 1995, p. Bl.
Additional information supplied by the Walt Disney Company, Inc.
—Anne Janette Johnson
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