Kara Swisher

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As Yahoo Continues to Wobble, Investors (And Board) Eye Options

When Yahoo announced on January 13, 2009, that it had hired longtime Silicon Valley tech veteran Carol Bartz to replace outgoing CEO and co-founder Jerry Yang and turn around the company, there was a sigh of relief.

At the time, she presented a take-no-prisoners image and was touted as someone with a reputation as a professional manager who could clean up the place.

Not so, as it has turned out.

While Bartz has streamlined certain areas and made some strong management hires, her performance has been decidedly bumpy and mostly downhill. (Update: And this afternoon that ride took her straight out the door.)

Consider: The share price has settled in at about $12.50 (just about where it was when Bartz took over), Yahoo’s recent financial results have been weak, its key advertising business is struggling, its attrition rate among engineers and others is startlingly high and its product innovation cycle seems stopped up. Add to that: Weak relationships with key Asian partners, a pricey but failed marketing effort and a proclivity for verbal gaffes by Bartz.

Still, given that Yahoo’s Internet traffic, top media sites and brand remain huge, the going-sideways situation has again caused some investors — including powerful private equity firms and other monied investors — to pull out their spreadsheets about a variety of scenarios related to Yahoo.

The players who have sniffed around of late are powerful, sources said, including Silver Lake Partners, Andreessen Horowitz, former News Corp. exec Peter Chernin and Providence Equity Partners, among others. Also in the Wall Street rumor mill recently are large companies: AT&T, News Corp. and Verizon.

“It’s hard to ignore all that value sitting there and not being managed properly,” said one person who is considering a variety of investing options related to Yahoo. “And it’s not like AOL, whose assets are so weak, so it seems like an opportunity.”

All the schemes are different — ranging from taking it private to making a large investment to splitting it into parts — although they all seem to require cooperation with Yahoo to get done.

And while there is no serious effort afoot as yet, there are increasing signs that Yahoo’s board is ready to listen to any serious offers, said multiple sources, especially as the company has continued to drift under the leadership of Bartz.

While board chairman Roy Bostock has publicly backed Bartz — after all, he was her biggest champion at the time of her hiring — multiple sources said he has started to become more involved at looking at the management issues at the company and its challenges.

Yang — still a key figure at Yahoo — has also become more active, said sources, and tensions between him and Bartz have increased over the last few months.

While this might, as often happens at Yahoo, lead nowhere, what’s clear is the increasing pressure on the directors of the company from its major shareholders to act.

“You watch an asset like that degrade and it makes you furious,” said one investor. “After a while, you hope it makes the board at Yahoo feel the same.”

Yahoo declined to comment (but so would I).

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