CEO Marissa Mayer’s efforts to save Yahoo (YHOO) are almost assuredly doomed. That was as true from the start of her tenure as it is now.
But for the moment, it appears Mayer may have been underestimated by many of her critics on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley.
The pressure from external investors leading up to the earnings call yesterday seemed to be building toward an announcement of an outright sale of the company’s business. And there were apparently many on the board who felt the same, according to Re/Code.
Instead, Mayer seems to have outflanked them, at least temporarily. The actual announcement, when it landed yesterday, came away as a carefully worded compromise.
Yes, there was acknowledgment that the company would “explore non-strategic asset divestitures” to focus the business and possibly raise a $1 billion (and possibly up to $3 billion) war chest.
And yes, there was this somewhat vague statement from Maynard Webb, Yahoo’s chairman of the board: “The Board also believes that exploring additional strategic alternatives, in parallel to the execution of the management plan, is in the best interest of our shareholders…we will engage on qualified strategic proposals.”
That has been widely interpreted as Yahoo saying, “Yep, we’re for sale.” But it’s also quite boilerplate stuff. Every public company has a duty to shareholders to consider any qualified proposal that could make a bundle for investors. Given that outside pressure, Yahoo no doubt had to acknowledge it was open to such a possibility.
But it’s worth noting that the board could have gone further. It could have fired Mayer, for one thing. The whole world seems to know she doesn’t want to sell. Any buyer would find it easier to consider a purchase with a caretaker CEO in the seat.
And the board could have noted that it hired an advisor to solicit acquisition offers. It didn’t say that either. Just that the door remains slightly ajar, as it always must be.
Instead, with Maynard’s statement, the board publicly re-affirmed that it is “committed to the turnaround efforts of the management team and supportive of the plan announced today.” (And yes, it pretty much has to make a public statement of confidence, as well.)
For Mayer’s part, it is admirable that she fought to stick around and take one more shot. If Mayer had just decided to walk away, to give in to the inevitable, I certainly wouldn’t have blamed her for a moment. And I don’t think most other people would, either.
When it comes to CEOs, Yahoo is a meat grinder. Every single CEO at Yahoo has seen their tenure end in failure. Every single one. Yahoo is a company that continues to exist despite itself and despite operating in a kind of aimlessness that stretches back almost 15 years now.
More than that, who needs the headache? She no doubt has plenty of money in the bank. She has ample personal reasons to kick back and take a few months off. And it is quite likely that her talents may be better suited to helping an energetic new startup achieve lift-off rather than salvaging a lumbering survivor of the Internet’s paleolithic era.
But she did not do that. She chose to stay put and redouble her efforts. And to do that, she had to beat back efforts by shareholders and apparently many on her own board who were ready to throw in the towel and just sell the whole shebang.
The next few months won’t be pretty, for her or her employees. She’s got to tell more than 15 percent of her employees that they’re fired. That will leave a company with 42 percent fewer employees than it had when she arrived in 2012. That’s not exactly the Yellow Brick Road to popularity.
The company she will be working with will be decidedly leaner, and many believe meaner. As I’ve said many times in the case of Hewlett-Packard or the newspaper business (my own former trade), I have yet to find an example of a company that has cut its way back to prosperity.
All the problems that existed at Yahoo when she arrived still seem evident. She must figure out a way to define Yahoo’s mission in a way that no one has been able to since the 1990s. And she must inspire greatness from employees who will be watching their neighbors get fired and going home each night wondering if they will be next.
In the end, all the cost-cutting and divestitures could wind up being measures that make a sale more enticing to some new corporate overlord who won’t have to come in and be the heavy. Whatever she does in the coming months (and possibly years), she will be doing it with vultures circling overhead.
So, this is a limited victory, to be sure. But it is a victory. And one for which Mayer deserves some credit and respect.
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