One of the longest, most successful runs as chief executive of an Internet company has come to an end: Come April 4, Eric Schmidt will step down as Google’s CEO, and cofounder Larry Page will resume the position.
Yes, resume. It’s so long ago that few remember, but Page was Google’s first CEO, and he held the job from 1998 until 2001, when Schmidt was hired. Page, his cofounder Sergey Brin, and Schmidt have long ruled as a triumvirate. They’ll continue to “discuss” key decisions, according to a blog post by Schmidt. But the rule by troika is apparently coming to an end:
For the last 10 years, we have all been equally involved in making decisions. This triumvirate approach has real benefits in terms of shared wisdom, and we will continue to discuss the big decisions among the three of us. But we have also agreed to clarify our individual roles so there’s clear responsibility and accountability at the top of the company.
On the company’s previously scheduled quarterly earnings call with analysts Thursday afternoon, Page congratulated Schmidt. But the conversation had an inevitably valedictory note.
Page has long held an interest in the top role: When I wrote about Google’s $25 million fundraising from Kleiner and Sequoia, I inadvertently swapped his position with that of Brin, who was then president, a mistake which promptly generated an email directly from Page himself. And I’ve heard from insiders over the years that Page was eager to be CEO again.
That’s never been the case with Brin, who is stepping down from his current role as president. This, too, is significant: Under Google’s corporate bylaws (which, no joke, I happened to be reading for kicks the other day), a president has many powers and responsibilities, including the ability to call a special meeting of the board. Brin is giving up all that, though he will likely retain considerable moral authority, including Google’s “don’t be evil” ethos. (“Evil is whatever Sergey says is evil,” Schmidt once told Wired.)
Page’s emphasis has always been on the company’s products. With his ascendancy, the company’s engineers will reign unchallenged — not that they had much trouble before.
It’s not clear what prompted the timing of this announcement. The company has faced increasing difficulties in buying its way into adjacent markets: See its failed bid for Groupon, or its attempted purchase of travel-search startup ITA Software, currently held up in regulatory review amid concerns from rivals. At the same time, Google has struggled in launching new products, especially social ones, to fend off challenges from Facebook and Twitter.
If it can’t buy, it must build. The question is, is Page a builder? He was in his first round as CEO. Now he’ll have to prove his product chops anew. One thing’s for sure now: He won’t have anyone else to blame if he screws things up.
A side note for corporate-governance geeks: In the triumvirate arrangement, Page and Brin both held the title of president, and Google’s corporate bylaws were written more or less around their roles. The bylaws say:
The officers of the corporation shall be a chief executive officer, one or more presidents (at the discretion of the Board), a chairman of the Board and a secretary.
That suggests, at least in my reading, that Google needs to have at least one president — “shall,” not “may,” with the board’s discretion applying only to the question of whether there’s one president or more. With Page moving up to CEO and Brin apparently giving up his title of president, will Google be in technical violation of its bylaws? Nothing prevents Page from holding the title of president and CEO — Google’s bylaws specifically say people can hold more than one office — but Google hasn’t indicated that’s the case in this transition. I invited Google PR to clarify, but they declined to do so on the record. In any case, there’s plenty of time between now and April 4 to clean this up.