Kara Swisher

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Yahoo Intensifies Search for CEO (With Hulu’s Kilar as One Dream Unicorn Candidate)

Whatever you want to call him or her — a silver bullet, the cure or, as I like to say, the last unicorn — Yahoo’s ever-seeking and never-deciding board has now renewed its focus on finding a new CEO.

Also on the docket: Working on a deal to sell back at least some of its stake in its twin Asian assets — Yahoo Japan and the Alibaba Group — back to the companies. A partial sale of stock back could placate the often tense situation among the partners.

What is clear is that the two bids from private equity firms are now in an undetermined circling pattern — due to a variety of concerns around shareholder unrest (Occupy Yahoo looms for 2012).

Therefore, the idea of bringing in said fantasy leader to perhaps finally be the one to revive the long-troubled company has returned to the forefront of action, according to numerous sources both inside and outside the company.

The concept in short, said people familiar with the situation: Hire some compelling and entrepreneurial CEO to get the company moving again from a product point of view, do a massive organizational overhaul and help settle Yahoo’s thorny Asian issues.

While a number of names have been rumored in reports — such as Google business lead Nikesh Arora, who is actually not likely to leave his top post at the search giant — sources said the board has been targeting a number of candidates, including Hulu CEO Jason Kilar.

Others on Yahoo’s wish list include Juniper CEO Kevin Johnson and online advertising entrepreneur Brian McAndrews, who sold aQuantive to Microsoft. There are several others also being considered.

Sources said Kilar has met with Yahoo board members about the offer, but his hiring would be a long shot.

It’s an interesting — if complex — gambit to bring in Kilar, who has had his own wrangles with the multi-owner structure of the premium video service over the years.

Kilar’s status at Hulu has been in question ever since it was put on the block, then removed and then — well — who knows.

Hulu’s owners — News Corp., Disney and Providence Equity Partners, along with Comcast (which is a now a passive investor) — did not like the offers it got from various bidders, including Yahoo.

While the media giants have made noises about wanting to keep a stake in distribution, their commitment to that remains unclear.

The situation has put Kilar — who already had tense relations with the service’s shareholders — in limbo until a valuation is determined next year. Without going into the complex details, Kilar has a large equity stake that could be liquid in April, related to certain rights held by Providence.

It is well known that Kilar has been concerned the team that built Hulu gets some sort of payout for their work. In fact, many years ago, Hulu was seen as a possible IPO candidate.

What’s not in question is Kilar’s talent at creating a cohesive team and a compelling product — especially with an advertising and media focus — and the need at Yahoo for a vibrant leader to encourage innovation and discourage its rapidly increasing attrition issues.

The search for a new Yahoo CEO — which is being led by director Patti Hart, and is being conducted by Heidrick & Struggles — had been mostly sidelined until recently, as the board solicited bids for a partial investment from PE firms.

Two emerged, from Silver Lake and TPG Capital, which had wanted to pay from $16.50 to $18 a share for a stake of just under 20 percent in what is called a PIPE (Private Investment in Public Equity) arrangement.

But the low price, and worries about lawsuits and even a proxy fight related to such a deal, have slowed down the momentum significantly, said sources.

Instead, Yahoo has told bidders it will get back to them in the coming weeks about the direction it will take. Thus, the focus on lining up CEO candidates and plans related to reviving Yahoo.

Some of those possible execs have put their hand up, while others — like Kilar — are being solicited. In addition, some still think that Yahoo board member David Kenny remains an internal option, especially if the board of Yahoo gets a refresh, despite his recent announcement that he has no intention of seeking the job.

In general, this shift should not come has a surprise for the hurry-up-and-wait board of Yahoo, which has struggled over the years to make good choices for the Silicon Valley Internet giant.

That drift has resulted in a downturn in its prospects, even as other companies have surged.

Those troubles were brought into sharp focus in a recent report by new Goldman Sachs Internet analyst Heath Terry, who strafed Yahoo in his “sell” recommendation.

Among the gems by an analyst whose investment bank is currently an advisor to Yahoo on its strategic options:

Yahoo simply faces too many competitive and structural headwinds to believe any kind of meaningful turnaround is possible. While there is significant asset value on the balance sheet and in the company’s large, though increasingly less engaged user base, we continue to believe, as we have since before the first Microsoft offer, that the segment of management driving the company is intent on trying to revive Yahoo as a company, regardless of the cost to shareholders.

And, noting the need for a new CEO:

We would become more positive if we felt there was a likely event in the near term that might unlock the value of the balance sheet assets at Yahoo. While we believe the aggregate value of those assets is above the value reflected in YHOO, in order to be more positive on the stock we would need some proof that management is willing and able to take the steps necessary to unlock that value either through a sale or distribution to shareholders. Meanwhile, the declining profitability of the core display advertising business is masked by a search business that continues to lose share and relies on artificial support from Microsoft. We would become more positive on the core Yahoo business if the company is able to find a new CEO capable of focusing the business on its core advertising and communications opportunities, rationalizing costs, and driving growth. This would require user growth and especially engagement improvements in both online and mobile, improving monetization of advertising inventory, and stabilizing its search business.

In other words: Wanted, one unicorn to work magic against increasingly troublesome dragons. Ability to sparkle a plus.

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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus