Over three years ago, Marissa Mayer, a highly respected Google executive, was appointed as Yahoo Inc.'s CEO with a mandate to turn around a company in rapid decline. Now, as the board of directors is set to consider the future of the company over the next three days, one of the burning questions will be whether to fire Mayer whose efforts at turning the company around have stagnated after some initial success.
On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal -- and subsequently the New York Times -- reported that the board of Yahoo is "planning a series of meetings this week to consider selling off the company’s flagging Internet businesses." The discussions will center on the possibility of selling off Yahoo's suite of services like Yahoo Mail along with its popular news, sport and entertainment -- discussions which will happen in parallel with talks about what to do with the company's stake in Alibaba Group, currently worth $30 billion.
The sale of its stake in the Chinese e-commerce giant has been muddled because the Inland Revenue Service has refused to say if the deal will be tax-free, as well as the fact that Alibaba's stock is down 20 percent this year, meaning the value of the holding is almost $8 billion less than what it was at the beginning of the year.
Change Of Culture
Earlier this month, Jeff Smith, the CEO of activist investor Starboard Value, one of Yahoo's main shareholders, wrote a letter to Mayer and Yahoo Chairman Maynard Webb urging the company to reverse its decision to sell Alibaba, while considering a sell-off of its core Internet businesses.
Smith added a thinly veiled threat to Mayer in the letter saying the value of the company is likely to decline further "without significant change to the culture" before adding: "We cannot imagine that any prudent individual assigns a high probability that Yahoo is on a path to substantially increase [its profits]."
Following initial reports of the potential sell-off, a Wall Street Journal report suggested that Japanese Internet and telecoms company Softbank could be one of the potential buyers for Yahoo's assets. Softbank, which is the largest shareholder in Alibaba, is also a majority shareholder in Yahoo Japan.
The potential sale of one -- or both -- of these aspects of the business will be discussed by the board over the next three days, according to anonymous sources who spoke to the Journal and the Times. However, it is very likely that the future of the company's CEO will come up for discussion. Mayer, who is expecting twins later this month, has been under pressure for the last 12 months as her plans to turn the company around have failed to have the expected impact.
Mayer has succeeded in stopping the rapid decline the company was experiencing when she joined, but significant investments in Tumblr and Polyvore have yet to pay dividends. Mayer has overseen acquisitions totaling $7 billion while annual revenue has declined 9 percent during her three-and-a-half-year tenure.
In her time at the company, Mayer has failed to introduce a major new product and the company's share of online advertising has continued to fall, with figures from eMarketer suggesting that Yahoo will capture just 4.8 percent of the U.S. search ad revenue in 2015, down from 5.6 percent in 2014.
Yahoo's stock price rallied on news of the potential sell-off by as much as 7 percent in extended trading on Tuesday, but since May the company's stock has been in free-fall, dropping as much as 25 percent before news of the board meeting broke. This, along with stagnating revenue and lack of a breakthrough product, means that Mayer's tenure in charge of Yahoo could be coming to an end.
One of the signs some analysts point to as evidence that Mayer should no longer be in charge of the company is the "brain drain" of senior executives -- many of them handpicked by Mayer -- who have departed the company over the last 12 months. Robert Peck, an analyst at SunTrust, earlier this month pointed out the increasing number of high-level departures and in a note to clients asked: "Is this a natural time to consider changes at the CEO level?"
A reprieve from death row
Last December, Peck predicted that then Twitter CEO Dick Costolo would not be in charge of the company 12 months later and with this prediction coming true, many think Mayer's days at Yahoo are numbered. Taking things into his own hands, Peck has even come up with a list of potential candidates to replace Mayer should she be fired. "We held many conversations with leading industry participants and investors to gauge what attributes would be needed and who would be a strong potential CEO candidate, should the company ultimately decide to make a change," Peck said.
The list includes Ross Levinsohn, a former interim Yahoo CEO and current CEO of Scout Media; Dan Rosensweig, a former Yahoo COO and current CEO of online textbook seller Chegg; Susan Wojcicki, YouTube CEO; and Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's COO.
In September, Scott Galloway, professor of marketing at NYU Stern School of Business, said that the only thing keeping Mayer in her position is the fact that she is pregnant. "If she hadn't announced she was pregnant with twins, she'd be out of a job within six months," Galloway told Bloomberg Surveillance, adding: "I don't think any board in America right now in technology that's as visible as Yahoo wants to be seen as not leaning in. She got a reprieve from death row because she's pregnant with twins."