If Bartz Can't Turn Yahoo Around, Who Can?

Fired Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz says she was "&#$ed over"

Gina Smith, Contributor

September 7, 2011

5 Min Read

I know Carol Bartz and consider her a mentor of sorts.

Ed: Article updated 2:39 PM PT Sept. 11, 2011

When I was a cub reporter in the early 1990s at PC Week, I grew to know her as the fabulously successful chairman and CEO of Autodesk, then a phenomenal turnaround story. That company then was one of the biggest software companies in the world.

I found Bartz incisive. Well-spoken. Quick. Witty. Cool. I immediately saw why Yahoo tapped her in January 2009 to replace then-Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang. She's a turnaround artist, plain and simple. Everyone knows it. And she's shown it. But her magic didn't work at Yahoo.

Or so it seems. As the dust settles, we'll talk to Carol and execs at Yahoo. Our team at BYTE will frame for you the circumstances surrounding her ouster and what it means to tech pros, IT and serious users in business.

She wrote the following note to Yahoo's 14,000 plus employees after the markets closed, the evening of her Sept. 8, 2011 firing.

To all, I am very sad to tell you that I've just been fired over the phone by Yahoo's Chairman of the Board. It has been my pleasure to work with all of you and I wish you only the best going forward. Carol

In an edgy and, at times, profane interview with Forbes on the day of the firing, excerpted below and available here, she called her fellow board members "doofuses" and tells journalist Patricia Sellers she was "f$%$%$% over." Excerpt:

What does Bartz think of her successor, Tim Morse? "He's a great guy," she says. Morse was chief financial officer under Bartz, and now he is interim chief of a company whose stock has risen (six percent) since he replaced her. Asked whom she thinks the board might appoint long-term, she replies, "They should bring me in. I knew what to do." Sometimes it's difficult to know when Bartz is being serious. As I prod her to tell me what she might do next, I mention her age, 63 -- "&^%& you, yeah," she replies. And when I ask her if she's on any other public company boards besides Cisco (CSCO), where she is lead independent director, she says, "I'm on Yahoo's board." She tells me that she plans to remain a Yahoo director—which might be unlikely since she has now called her fellow directors "doofuses."

Wall Street appeared to greet the ouster with gusto after hours Tuesday. And analysts I spoke to Wednesday wondered if Bartz needed more time -- or whether she just couldn't execute toward making Yahoo social. A new CEO will only prolong a turnaround -- the site gets about 500 million unique visitors a month, 200 million fewer visitors than Facebook.

"She did a great job in terms of operational basics, but in the second act, she didn't deliver," said Karsten Weide, an analyst at IDC. "She needed to think about 'how do we get out of this mess in terms of growing the business again?' Facebook attracts a lot of brand advertiser budgets that otherwise would've gone to Yahoo." Social is a big part of where Yahoo struck out. "It should've been Yahoo Plus, not Google+," said Weide. "What Yahoo needs is a mixture of a visionary and a media partner."

Yahoo, he said, was in such a rush to get Bartz out, it didn't even hire a recruitment firm until the next day.

Watch BYTE in coming days for an interview with Bartz and more on her take and interviews with Yahoo boardmembers.

Now, I have a bit of experience running companies and I can tell you for certain that public companies usually have a more solid plan for replacing a CEO than putting in its CFO (in this case, Tim Morse) as interim CEO and surrounding him with a pack of execs to help. So why the fire drill?

Wall Street analysts have continually been tough on Yahoo as its fortunes decline while Google's rise. But what else is new?

There's no question that Bartz' fortunes have been steadily declining over the last year. Hired in 2008 with a $42 million-plus salary, according to public docs BYTE obtained, this April saw that decline take her down to $11 million. It’s better than lunch money, but that’s still a 75 percent pay cut.

The video below shows Bartz giving a long answer to a short question: What is Yahoo?

The board might be right that Bartz can't save Yahoo. But the board who threw her under the bus better have a four-star replacement. And soon.

Because turnaround artist that she is--and I've seen Bartz nail a turnaround like nobody's business--I am wondering who else has the Yahoo voodoo. Yahoo obviously doesn't know yet. Meanwhile, Google looms.

Viewer discretion advised for the Carol Bartz video below. She tells off a former Silicon Valley journalist, saying it takes time to turn around a company. For the record, I agree.

Watch BYTE in coming days for more on goings-on at Yahoo and how it plays into consumer tech in business. I'd love to hear your opinions.

Gina Smith is editor-in-chief of BYTE. Based in San Francisco, follow her @ginasmith888 or email her at [email protected].

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