Three Months After Bartz’s Firing, It’s Hurry Up and Wait at Yahoo (A Big Honking Update)
“Let’s go. Yes, let’s go.” [They do not move.]
— Samuel Beckett, “Waiting for Godot”
In Internet terms, the removal of Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz happened a dog’s age ago.
In fact, it was September 6.
Since then, it has felt like a slow slog, especially contrasting the situation with that of another troubled Silicon Valley giant, Hewlett-Packard, which fired its CEO Léo Apotheker and appointed a new one, Meg Whitman on September 22.
Since then, in comparison, the former eBay CEO has been like the Energizer Bunny, making a series of major and often difficult decisions, including: Holding onto its PC unit; reaffirming its controversial deal to buy Autonomy; promising a decision on the fate of its webOS unit within the next two weeks; appointing new execs; and even buying a company.
To be fair, Yahoo did acquire advertising start-up Interclick.
Otherwise, still no sale or investment deal. No new CEO. No Asia resolution. And, perhaps most importantly, no clearly articulated strategy going forward.
It’s not that Yahoo’s leadership isn’t working at it.
Some fervently insist to me that there is a “plan,” as if there is some clever game of Internet Stratego going on that I cannot possibly grok.
Mebbe — but of this I have no doubt: The Yahoo board has indeed been huffing and puffing away, weighing and measuring, considering and debating.
Maybe I’m just too impatient. I am (ask my kids).
Or maybe Yahoo’s beleaguered employees are, one of whom just wrote me plaintively, “unreal how they can drag this out,” in what has become a common refrain up and down the ranks.
Or maybe it’s the Asian partners, Alibaba Group and SoftBank, who are antsy and have considered a variety of nuclear options in order to get back stakes Yahoo holds in them. Said one: “The strategy seems to be to frustrate and exhaust us into submission.”
Or, finally, maybe it’s the newly frustrated recent bidders for a partial stake in Yahoo, Silver Lake and TPG Capital. Declared one to me after I warned that Yahoo might, in fact, drag the proceedings out longer than you might expect: “I thought you were kidding.”
Nope, welcome to the Yahoo waiting game, PE guys!
So, to help us all get through it, here’s a quick update primer on what’s what on the various fronts:
Who’s in Charge Here?
Technically, it is the Yahoo board, which is aided by interim CEO Tim Morse.
First, a word about Morse: By all accounts, he is doing a very good job as temporary head honcho — calming the troubled company, making swift decisions about daily operating issues and being a generally nice dude to deal with.
“He’s Yahoo’s no-drama Obama, in comparison to what was happening before,” said one exec, in reference to the more volatile regime under Bartz.
Still, despite his very pleasant all-hands meetings, such as one earlier this week, Morse had previously been Yahoo’s CFO and not an Internet-savvy visionary to give the company inspiration. No insult intended, but he’s the accountant guy.
To be fair, he is not meant to be the visionary, but many at the company are yearning for exactly that.
A role that is now being taken up again by co-founder, former CEO and director Jerry Yang, who dozens of employees tell me is unusually involved in operational details these days for a board member.
I get reports of sightings of him all the livelong day: Jerry in demand-side advertising confab! Jerry chitchatting with entrepreneurs from a possible start-up acquisition! Jerry weighing in on a variety of products. Look, over in the cubicle, it’s Jerry!
This is seen by Yahoo employees as a good thing and also a bad thing, since it’s hard to be running your little divisional show at Yahoo with the dude who invented it all looking over your shoulder, even if he means well. People naturally defer to Yang, the 800-pound Web icon in the room.
But, given the overwhelming state of stasis at Yahoo now — “No one can do anything until we find out how the story ends,” said one staffer — and employees eying the exits, no power at Yahoo really matters but the board.
You know, the board that has gotten the company to this moment of crisis and profound ennui, which is its own particularly ironic irony.
To better understand the power dynamics on the board, above is a little chart for you to peruse to give you an idea of which independent board member is running what key committee.
The only truly important one is the Transactions and Strategic Planning committee, which is headed by Intuit President and CEO Brad Smith and includes former Akamai President (and former Yahoo CEO candidate) David Kenny, top HP exec Vyomesh Joshi and other guy Gary Wilson.
And, in completely visible shadow form, Yang. Multiple sources close to the situation said he has been a key force in the strategery around a possible sale or investment.
This has caused not more than a little tension among board members, but everyone seems to like the much described nicest-man-in-the-room, Smith, and hopes his cool head will prevail.
Another important part of the board is the Nominating and Corporate Governance committee run by Patti Hart, who is energetically and simultaneously — if pointlessly — in search of a capable new Yahoo CEO.
Or, as I like to call this mythical person: The Unicorn.
As I and many others have previously reported, there are bids on the table for partial investments in Yahoo by two very powerful private equity firms, Silver Lake and TPG Capital.
It’s a PE rumble, with a side of Microsoft financial backing! (I think Silver Lake’s Egon Durban makes a very nice Riff, while Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer is the perfect Officer Krupke.)
My fervent wishes for some figurative and dance-accompanied knife-play aside, the bids are essentially the same in general and different in particular. Silver Lake is offering about $16.50 a share, while TPG is dangling a tiny bit more. Silver Lake has power entrepreneur and VC Marc Andreessen on its side, while TPG is trying to get Silicon Valley fave investor and start-up whisperer Reid Hoffman of Greylock Partners and LinkedIn on its team. Both have ideas on CEOs, strategy and what to do about the Asian assets.
This type of deal could happen suddenly and you’ll hear about it quick, since the losing side will immediately trash it to the media.
As you might expect, each director has their favorite PE firm, with some not liking Andreessen, some thinking the TPG bid is a little light, some for a whole-company deal and some wanting Yahoo to hire its own CEO and run the place itself.
Of course, the last one shows a disturbing level of denial and should be a nonstarter, given the board’s abysmal record on CEO choice and its riding of Yahoo to this sad point in its storied history.
Here’s what to expect on the PE front: A lot of wrangling behind the scenes with frequent leaks to the media about what each side wants and will not yield on.
CEO choice or no CEO choice, that is the question!
Also a big factor are Yahoo’s major shareholders, few of whom like the partial investment deal, which is known as a PIPE (Private Investment in Public Equity), because of the insiderness of it all and because they prefer a whole-company sale at a higher price.
There is also pressure from activist shareholders like Daniel Loeb of Third Point, who has attacked Yang and others on the board and is ready to pounce with a proxy fight if Yahoo tries to override shareholders too egregiously. And, of course, the inevitable lawsuits over any arrangement that seems to block a whole-company bid.
That said, such a mega-deal seems unlikely, since it is too pricey and despite a lot of noise that Yahoo’s Asian partners were ready to strike with a takeover in order to get back Yahoo’s big stakes in their companies.
That’s kind of like buying a store to get back the cool pair of shoes you sold, but bankers love to scheme up this stuff. While it certainly could happen, it would be a bear of a deal.
Perhaps more like Yogi Bear, hopelessly angling for a tasty pic-a-nik basket — but grrrr anyway.
But perhaps the biggest factor in all of this mishegas is time. There is none on a lot of levels, most especially the increasing level of brain drain and drift at Yahoo. After the New Year dawns, this is going to spin right out of control and amount to the biggest internal challenge Yahoo faces.
An Asian Solution
As I and others have reported, Yahoo is entertaining yet another proposal to sell all or part of its Asian assets back to the companies, which make up a bulk of its market valuation.
The relationship between Yahoo and its Asian partners has long been fraught, and today the difficulty of reaching an agreement remains a vexing issue. That’s because it is hard and complex and because no one wants to do what the other side wants.
I am no tax attorney, but it seems as if Yahoo will ultimately come to some deal with China’s Alibaba and Japan’s SoftBank, which could include big investors like Russia’s DST Global.
And, as I reported last week, the Asian partners want to strike a deal with the current board rather than lose leverage with a much cannier new owner.
It’s a tough decision in all aspects to strike, but would remove the focus on the fact that Yahoo’s most valuable asset is something it is not running and simply holds due to a good stock trade in years past.
Years past should be the operative thought here, since the Asian assets have nothing to do with what Yahoo needs to do with its core U.S. and global brand.
You know, the thing that allowed them to buy those lucrative Asian assets in the first place?
And that’s the crux of all this, isn’t it? Yahoo needs a new strategy and fast.
Or it needs to clarify and hone its current strategies around advertising and media and define itself once and for all. While it often touts itself as a premier digital media company, it’s still not clear exactly what Yahoo is saying by that.
In fact, incredibly, sources told me that the board was still wrangling over the tired issue of what Yahoo is at its most recent meeting — essentially, is it a products company or a media company?
If I had to listen to that who-am-I-anyway debate again, I think I would scream, given how many important Web trends that Yahoo has whiffed in recent years, many of which were right in its own wheelhouse.
How much damage this has caused to Yahoo’s core business is a critical one to determine, with many feeling the situation is too far gone to revive it and others confident that this is simply an issue of poor execution.
I am in the middle on this one, but all the indicators of Yahoo’s business have long been heading in the wrong direction, and results in the next quarter are expected to underline this even more.
Thus, the board’s navel-gazing at this point is untoward, considering that it is presiding over the possibility of a sale that should not have had to happen in the first place. While it is not quite a fire sale, it’s no cause for celebration at all the attention, either.
In fact, it’s also pointless, since — if this all resolves as it should — the current Yahoo board will not be the one determining the company’s future any longer. Remember that: This group should and will be gone for the most part.
Yahoo shareholders and employees can hope, at least.
Then, it will be up to the next group of leaders to make the very hard choices — including what are likely to be massive layoffs and radical surgery on its offerings — for what’s to come next.
In the end, that is all that will matter. Until then, as usual, you’ll have to sit tight.