What Was Behind the Timing of Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz’s Abrupt Ouster?
In the end — the bitter end, that is — there really is no good time to fire someone.
But the timing of the ouster of Carol Bartz as CEO of Yahoo is one of the more curious things about the corporate mishegas at the Silicon Valley Internet giant of late.
That included drastically moving up the clock on Bartz, which was not part of a plan until recently. In fact, several sources were told only last month by Yahoo board members that evaluation of her status — her contract ended at the beginning of 2013 — would not take place until the end of 2011.
That obviously changed.
And, because it is Yahoo — which never met a crisis situation it could not hopelessly complexify — there are numerous and conflicting accounts about the reasons it was done so quickly and abruptly.
They include the board’s feeling that Bartz had not responded to their requests for a credible strategic plan; worries that she would not ever meet annual performance goals, including improving its stock price; upcoming weak third-quarter numbers, which will continue a troublesome downward trend in Yahoo’s key advertising business; and, perhaps most intriguingly, the need to make a move before it was revealed that another activist investor, this time Third Point’s Daniel Loeb, had decided to target Bartz and the Yahoo board.
One thing is certain: The firing of Bartz was messier than it needed to be, mostly because several sources said she was caught unawares.
“She did not know it was happening, even if she probably should have seen it coming,” said one person familiar with the situation. “And she had no allies at the company to warn her, either.”
Indeed, at the time Bartz was fired over the phone by Chairman Roy Bostock — who had until late this summer been her fervent supporter — she was set to appear at a high-profile Citigroup investor conference in New York.
“It had to happen then, because you can’t put a CEO in front of investors and analysts and then fire her soon after,” said one person close to the situation.
Actually, former Yahoo CEO Terry Semel stepped down only days after appearing at the company’s annual meeting and telling the gathering he was in for the long haul.
The Loeb problem also played a part. According to several sources, while Loeb did not surface until after Bartz’s firing, several directors and Silicon Valley players were aware of his plans to target Yahoo.
While Loeb was not the more heavyweight threat that activist investor Carl Icahn had been in the past, sources said he was planning to call for Bartz’s firing, as well as a board re-do.
The large part of the reason for letting her go finally, of course, centered on not meeting performance goals set by the board.
While the overhaul of a hairball of systems and a rejiggering of staff was quickly done by the longtime and experienced manager, the turnaround and renewed product innovation promised by Bartz was slow in coming.
In addition, advertising sales results had worsened and recent quarterly reports showed little progress.
To remedy the situation, directors had asked Bartz to present a strategic plan earlier this year, which she did with the help of top execs. It further underscored the idea of Yahoo as a top-level digital media company.
But the board pressed for more details and felt Bartz was not the right exec to carry out the kind of dramatic renewal of Yahoo that is needed.
Looming, too, was the third-quarter earnings results on October 18, which sources said will show continued weakness at Yahoo.
For that, it’s likely the fired Bartz will get the blame, giving the board — which is also being criticized by large shareholders and others — a bit of breathing room as it figures out what to do next.
In other words, with no good news to report, the Yahoo board decided to deliver some bad news to Bartz.
(In related news, according to an 8-K filing by the company, interim Yahoo CEO and also CFO Tim Morse got a small bump in base salary from $600,000 to $750,000, effective September 15, 2011.)
And here is a video I did on WSJ.com’s Digits show yesterday about the buyer interest in Yahoo I previously wrote about, as well as its weak board: