The Walt Disney board on Sunday it had unanimously elected Robert Iger to take over as chief executive when Michael Eisner steps down.

The entertainment group also announced that Mr Eisner would leave in September, a year earlier than originally planned.

George Mitchell, chairman, said the decision to promote the president and chief operating officer was reached after a ?lengthy, thorough and professional selection process, comparing both internal and external candidates?. Gerard Roche, senior chairman of Heidrick & Struggles, the headhunting firm hired by Disney last year, said: ?The search and the process for considering potential candidates was thorough and exhaustive and met the most rigorous standards.?

The statements appeared calculated to head off criticisms from former board members who have alleged the choice of Mr Iger, 54, was a foregone conclusion.

Roy Disney and Stanley Gold suggested last week that the board would be intimidated by Mr Eisner's inclusion in the selection and interview process.

Mr Eisner, who has led Disney since 1984, also acted to confirm that he would cut all business ties with the company, in a letter to the board indicating he would not stand for re-election as a director at next spring's annual meeting. ?I will not make a request of the Board to nominate me for an additional term nor will I seek the chairmanship of the company,? he said.

The choice of Mr Iger was foreshadowed by his being touted as Mr Eisner's preferred choice and the board's declaration that he was the sole internal candidate. The decision came more than two months before the June deadline the board set last year for concluding a search among leaders of other companies.

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