Yahoo Bored Meeting? Not This Time!
Today and tomorrow, Yahoo’s directors are gathering here in Silicon Valley for one of their regular meetings that take place over the course of the year.
While board meetings in general are usually pretty dull affairs–and Yahoo’s, in particular, are typically glacial ones–there is a lot on the plates of those with purview over the machinations of the long-struggling Silicon Valley Internet giant.
Here’s a primer of what might (and might not) be happening, according to sources, of course, as Yahoo continues on its quest to reinvigorate itself–a journey that is beginning to make Siddhartha’s transformation into Buddha enlightenment look speedy.
A Yahoo spokeswoman declined to comment on anything below, although I did run it all by them.
The U-Shaped Turnaround
At Yahoo’s recent sales meeting in San Antonio, CEO Carol Bartz went all Sesame Street on the troops, using the letter “U” as an illustration to indicate where in the cycle the company was in its turnaround.
Apparently, just on the other side of the very bottom of the letter, heading inevitably upward.
Her argument was that the company has finally cleaned up its platform mess and its confusing corporate structure, and that its display and search advertising business is now recovering nicely.
All true, except there are some other key issues, such as the slowness of the search and online advertising partnership with Microsoft to make some serious hay.
In fact, although its display business will show a definite strong recovery in Yahoo’s quarterly results next week, its search business–both in market share and revenue per search (RPS)–has, as one person close to the situation put it succintly, “fallen off the cliff.”
That’s due, in part, to getting the new system with Microsoft delivering better results, which is not happening yet (if ever!).
In this quarter, Microsoft has honored its contractual guarantees and will make up the difference–which will result in masking the magnitude of the RPS loss. It’s a worrisome trend to watch.
The Asia Situation
Yahoo and its Asian partners are still mulling over various options regarding the company’s large ownership stakes there.
What is happening with its share in China’s Alibaba Group, according to sources, is precisely nothing right now, as has been made clear in recent comments by its CEO and co-founder Jack Ma.
“If you cannot make the business cool, you have no right to be angry with me,” said Ma in an article in Forbes published this week, referring to Yahoo. “I just don’t trust them…I’ve been working with them for years, and I’m disappointed.”
Relations between Ma and Bartz, sources said, remain as bad as ever, and even the normally close one between Ma and Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang is strained.
Plus, Ma told Forbes, as he has said before, Alibaba is not taking its auction site, Taobao, public–leaving Yahoo in possession of an appreciating but decidedly private asset.
Japan is a different story, with the disposition of Yahoo’s stake in Yahoo! Japan the subject of long and continuing negotiations for a while now.
While the earthquake and tsunami crisis there did slow discussions down, there is still active recent movement about a variety of cashing-out scenarios, all of which have massive tax and regulatory issues.
Without boring you with the specifics, one option is to create a tracking stock, another a spin-off of the asset and still another some sort of stock trade.
But no matter what happens, Yahoo will have to pay some sort of taxes on its 35 percent stake in Yahoo! Japan, now worth $8 billion.
But if its CFO Tim Morse–the key figure working on the deal–can pull it off, what will Yahoo do with all that money?
Acquisition Guns Blazing? Or Sputtering?
In a recent forum in Silicon Valley, one of its M&A minions said Yahoo had its “guns blazing” with regard to acquisition activity in 2011, as deliciously reported in The Wall Street Journal, despite the company’s lackluster acquisition record.
Sources said the exec had his ears soundly boxed by his managers for the dopey remarks, since Yahoo has had such a lackluster record in the arena–especially compared to others.
And, oh yes, Yahoo’s M&A head just decamped to gaming phenom Zynga.
That aside, Yahoo should be deep in the market for hot start-ups to help revive its innovative spirit, but it remains hindered by a continued reluctance by new start-ups to join it and by its reputation for being a place where entrepreneurs go to die.
That certainly could change at any time with the right execs in place, but Yahoo is competing with a plethora of more exciting companies and also a seemingly endless venture capital gusher of cash of late.
While it is the board’s job to approve acquisitions and not source them, perhaps it is its job to pressure Bartz and other execs to get off the stick and hit at least one of the targets Yahoo aims at.
Targets are plentiful in advertising, content and even social, with many start-ups playing right into a lot of arenas Yahoo needs some help.
And help it does need as talent keeps walking out the door daily, mostly to hotter prospects such as Zynga and social buying sites Groupon and LivingSocial.
There is no question it is hard for any large company to hold onto top staff when there are so many enticing bonbons out there as options, but it can be done.
One good thing: Its newish head of product Blake Irving and head of U.S. media and advertising Ross Levinsohn seem to be playing well together and are setting a tone of stability that is much needed.
Enter the Kenny
That said, there remains endless swirl, especially with key investors, about the performance of its CEO.
While she started off as a publicly in-your-face exec, Bartz has definitely stepped out of the limelight of late, as her pugnacious manner started to irritate Wall Street and others.
It was a good idea, since it has taken the focus off the lack of stock and revenue progress she had loudly promised.
Still, Yahoo shares have continued to stay locked in the mid-teens, as investors wait for some sign that Bartz’s turnaround has worked.
The entrance of its spanking new director, Akamai President David Kenny, has further increased speculation about management and board changes at Yahoo.
This is Kenny’s first board meeting, but this well-connected newbie is someone who is clearly going to rise quickly to the top of decision-making at Yahoo.
That’s because the smooth and well-liked Kenny, who also has deep advertising experience as founder of the Digitas agency, has a long relationship with Yahoo and also with Yang.
He also now has much more tech cred as a leader of one of the Internet’s most important infrastructure companies, with a ton of regular contacts with media giants, ad networks and video providers that are Akamai’s clients.
In other words, Kenny (pictured here) is the full package of ad and tech experience that would make him an obvious Yahoo CEO candidate when Bartz’s contract is up in early 2013, if not before.
He’s also the person most likely to take over for longtime BoomTown punching bag Roy Bostock as chairman of the board at some point.
None of this is happening soon, but it is clearly an interesting development.
There are other machinations, of course, from continued interest from private equity players in Yahoo, as well as a variety of takeover scenarios, each more complex than the next.
While often derided as yesterday’s news by the elite of Silicon Valley as on an inevitable downward path, those plots are there because Yahoo remains a stellar brand with consumers worldwide and an Internet property with huge traffic and a big ad business.
In other words, it’s a U that someday maybe could be a V.