Felix Salmon: Is Marissa Mayer the right CEO for Yahoo?:
Nicholas Carlson, Joe Weisenthal, and Henry Blodget deserve many congratulations on Carlson’s monster 22,500-word profile of Marissa Mayer. It features the kind of deep reporting one normally only finds in books, and it sheds a lot of light on what is going on at Yahoo — both at the senior executive level and at board level. What’s more, Carlson was fortunate enough to get just the right amount of access to Mayer — enough to be able to fill in the necessary details, get lovely bits of color, and ask her the questions he needed to ask, but not so much that he became captured. (In general, with very few exceptions, the more time that a journalist spends with his subject, the more favorable the resulting profile will be.)
After reading Carlson’s piece, it’s clear that Mayer has genuinely changed Yahoo for the better, over the course of the year that she’s been running it. What’s not clear, yet, is whether Yahoo’s board made the right choice in picking Mayer over the alternative choice, Ross Levinsohn. Especially since the choice of Mayer was pushed through by two men — Dan Loeb and Michael Wolf — who aren’t even on the board any more.
When Loeb first took his large stake in Yahoo and pushed for a shake-up, his plan was clear. Yahoo was massively undervalued on any kind of sum-of-the-parts analysis, thanks to its large stakes in Alibaba and Yahoo Japan. As a result, if a new CEO were to come in and shake things up radically, the chances of value being destroyed were relatively low, while the amount of potential upside was enormous. So Loeb was itching to roll the dice.
What’s fascinating about Carlson’s account is the way in which Loeb, along with Wolf, his handpicked lieutenant, managed to override Yahoo’s chairman, Fred Amoroso, who favored Levinsohn over Mayer. Loeb’s 5% stake in the company was significant, but far from controlling — yet somehow, in practice, Loeb managed to get exactly what he wanted, even when he disagreed with the chairman of the board.
The choice of Mayer is particularly interesting in light of the fact that Levinsohn’s plan was in many ways more disruptive than Mayer’s. Yahoo has always struggled with the question of whether it is a media company or a technology company, and Levinsohn wanted to settle that question once and for all: he would sell Yahoo’s search business to Microsoft, while receiving MSN.com and lots of money in return, and move to using Google’s superior search product instead. And he could increase Yahoo’s Ebitda by 50%, even while he shrank Yahoo to a mere 4,000 employees — down from well over 15,000 as a technology company. At the end of the process, Yahoo would be a large, lean media machine, with more than 700 million unique visitors every month. Yahoo could sell those readers to advertisers, and make a fortune.
Given the inherent difficulty of competing over the long term not only with behemoths like Google and Apple but also with countless startups all wanting to eat your lunch, Levinsohn’s strategy made a lot of sense. You could get a lot of buzz by hiring a young, photogenic technology icon, who could then go on a massive shopping spree with shareholders’ money; that might well cause investors to boost your p/e multiples over the short term. But that basically would just turn Yahoo stock into a timing game, with the trick being to get out just as the honeymoon period is ending, and before shareholders start demanding financial returns on their M&A investments.
Loeb is a hedge fund manager: his job is to be good at timing games, buying low and selling high. And that’s exactly what he did at Yahoo. He sold his shareholding, and gave up his board seats, after the stock went up. But the job of the board, and of the board chairman, and of the CEO, is not to enrich and enable here-today-gone-tomorrow speculators. Rather, it’s to create permanent value. And it’s far too early to tell whether Mayer is capable of doing that.