Why He Matters
Hightower is a Washington, D.C. native, but he never showed much interest in working for the federal government. At age 67, that has changed.
As deputy secretary, Hightower will be running the day-to-day operations of an agency department that has 12 bureaus and a budget surpassing $17 billion.(1) He acts as an adviser to Secretary Gary Locke on issues such as how to conduct the 2010 census.
Hightower has spent over 30 years in the corporate world, including at multiple Fortune 500 companies. He ran the TV operations at The Walt Disney Co. for a year, and even helped market the launch of Euro Disney, an amusement park in Paris, France. Although retired, Hightower is a respected business mind who has taught at Harvard business school and served on the boards of various companies while he waited for confirmation from the Senate.
He had previously never worked for the government, but did serve in the Army.
Path to Power
Born in Washington, D.C., Hightower immediately showed potential, graduating from public high school at the age of 16.(2) For undergraduate, Hightower stayed in D.C., attending Howard University. But after earning a degree in 1962, Hightower’s career was placed on hold as he joined the Army to fight in the Vietnam War.
Hightower served the country for eight years, reaching the rank of major. In 1970, he left the Army to join the private sector, working as a manager of Xerox’s Research and Engineering Group. He excelled at Xerox for two years, earning a fellowship to Harvard’s business school.
After graduating in 1974, Hightower became a senior associate and manager at the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. He stayed at McKinsey for four years. Next Hightower spent three years at General Electric, running a lighting affiliate based in Mexico. In 1981, he became a vice president at the toy company Mattel, before joining Russell Reynolds Associates three years later as an executive director.
Walt Disney Co.
After two years at the executive consulting firm, Hightower joined Disney where he presided over consumer products in Europe and Asia. Hightower ran the international consumer line for eight years, increasing Disney’s retail sales from $650 million to $4.5 billion.(2) In 1995, the head of Disney’s television unit, Richard Frank, resigned. Disney’s CEO Michael Eisner named Hightower to replace Frank. Hightower’s selection confused investors since Hightower had no television experience. The experiment didn’t last long. A year after taking over Disney’s television division, Hightower stepped down.
After leaving Disney, Hightower became a full-time professor of management at Harvard’s business school. Hightower taught at Harvard for four years before deciding to rejoin the business sector. In 2000, Europe Online Networks, a private broadband interactive entertainment company based in Luxembourg, named Hightower as its chief executive. Hightower would only stay for two years before retiring.
Despite continuing to serve on corporate boards, like Domino’s Pizza and Accenture, Hightower kept a low-profile after announcing his retirement. But in July 2009, President Barack Obama named Hightower as the number-two man at the Commerce Department.
Hightower joins the Commerce Department as it revs up efforts to conduct the 2010 census. As the second-in-command, Hightower will run the day-to-day operations at the department that has an annual budget surpassing $17 billion and oversight of 12 bureaus that include the Patent and Trademark Office, Bureau of the Census and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.(1)
In 1987, Hightower became Disney’s president of consumer products for Europe and the Middle East, allowing him oversight of various divisions — including book publishing, merchandise licensing, children’s music and computer software — spanned across 16 offices throughout the region. Disney credited Hightower for increasing the value of retail sales in the region from around $650 million to over $4.5 billion in eight years.(3)
But in 1995, Chairman of Walt Disney Television and Telecommunications Richard Frank stepped down. This was not a shock; Frank was planning on leaving Disney. The surprise came when Disney’s CEO Eisner named Hightower as Frank’s replacement. Hightower had no experience running television stations and admitted to watching very little TV in the ten years prior to his appointment. “I know distribution," said Hightower, "I know how to get shelf space, what I've to learn now is air space.”(4)
But Hightower’s tenure was short. A year after he took the job, Hightower stepped down. Eisner and Hightower claimed Hightower had informed Eisner that he would take over as head of the TV unit for a year, and then retire. Hightower’s retirement also came two months after Disney purchased Capital Cities/ABC, and analysts speculated that his departure was aimed at easing efforts to integrate the ABC TV operations.(5)
Hightower joins the Commerce Department, working under Secretary Gary Locke. He receives legal advice from General Counsel Cameron F. Kerry. Census Director Robert M. Groves will report to both Locke and Hightower.
Hightower donated $3,000 since 1995, but hasn’t donated any money since 1996. All of Hightower’s money has gone to support Democratic campaigns. In 1995, he donated $1,000 to President Bill Clinton. In 1996, Hightower donated $2,000 to Harvey Gantt (D) in his failed North Carolina Senate bid.(6)
"Locke Statement on President Obama's Intent to Nominate Dennis Hightower as Commerce Deputy Secretary," Department of Commerce Documents, July 22, 2009
Lippman, John, "New Head of Disney TV Doesn't Know Television but Plans to Be a Quick Study," The Wall Street Journal, March 13, 1995
"Richard Frank to Leave Disney," PR Newswire, March 13, 1995
Tourtellotte, Bob, "Disney to continue network hunt -- Hightower," Reuters News, March 14, 1995
"Disney TV chief Hightower to retire," Reuters News, April 14, 1996
Center for Responsive Politics