Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Yahoo!'s Directors Must Go

08/05/09 - 09:51 AM EDT


Eric Jackson

REDMOND, Wash. (TheStreet) -- Last week's news of a search partnership between Microsoft(MSFT Quote) and Yahoo!(YHOO Quote) means that Yahoo! is leaving the search business and handing the keys over to its rival and former suitor.

The market sent Microsoft's shares higher and dropped Yahoo!'s like a stone. Since the announcement, 15% of the Web portal's market capitalization had been shaved off. After a lot of tough talk from the new CEO in her first six months, Carol Bartz has laid her first egg with investors. She didn't manage expectations properly. But it's Yahoo!'s longtime directors who deserve the most blame for this most recent Yahoo! stumble. They should leave immediately.

After years of abuse, Yahoo! investors took heart when Bartz was named to replace Jerry Yang as CEO in January. From the moment she arrived, her cussing and put-downs of her predecessors earned her points on Wall Street and with journalists.

She described Yang's organizational chart of Yahoo! as something out of Dilbert; she agreed with the "Peanut Butter Manifesto" -- a 2006 internal document penned by a Yahoo! vice president that pointed out the internal problems with the company -- at a May conference with Terry Semel and Sue Decker (Yang's predecessors in the top two roles) in the audience; and at the same conference, about 60 days before last week's announcement, she told the audience she would do a deal with Microsoft for "boatloads of cash."

After a $47 billion buyout offer from Microsoft last year for all of Yahoo!, followed by a proposed search deal with a $5 billion upfront payment, Yahoo! investors believed that Bartz finally had Yahoo! on the right track. She let the expectations run. The stock climbed to more than $17 from $13 before the search deal was announced.

Yet, last week's announcement saw Yahoo! shareholders get no upfront money from Microsoft. Instead, they get 88% of the ongoing revenue, or traffic acquisition cost (TAC) rates, from Microsoft in the partnership for the next three years. Meanwhile, Yahoo!'s shutting down its search engineering unit, which employs about 1,000, and saving on that ongoing investment.

Microsoft is getting a zero money-down, lease-to-own deal that allows it to swallow the No. 2 competitor in the fast-growing search market and achieve a credible market share level against Google(GOOG Quote). Despite the high TAC rate, you haven't been able to find one Microsoft shareholder irate about this deal, including me.

Bartz tried to explain the deal to her investors on the initial call by saying that instead of receiving "boatloads of cash," they were getting "boatloads of value" from the deal. The Street thought otherwise and butchered Yahoo!'s stock price.

For the first time in her Yahoo! tenure, she's contrite: "I made a mistake. I was never interested in doing it for upfront money. That doesn't help me operate a business."

Bartz can't have it both ways. She can't portray herself as the "grown up" cleaning up the mess that the kids who used to run the place left her with and then make such a rookie mistake in managing investor expectations. Either she knew 60 days ago that she was getting no upfront payment and made a misguided "boatload" comment, or Microsoft really turned the screws on her in the last few weeks and stuffed lousy terms down her throat that she had to take.

Her other explanations for doing this deal sound hollow. She said, "We didn't want to get into an arms race with Google and Microsoft in search." Then why did your board authorize spending billions on search companies and hundreds of millions of dollars in internal development of the much hyped and never effective "Project Panama" over the last three years?

Bartz said, "We didn't want to pay a lot of taxes on an upfront payment." Wouldn't your shareholders like to see you paying a lot in taxes on a payment as a sign that you had received a lot of money from Microsoft?

She said the market had changed a lot since 2008, when the full buyout offer for Yahoo! was still on the table. Yet, since Microsoft dropped the bid for Yahoo! on May 4, 2008, the Nasdaq is down only 17%, while the value of the deal Microsoft is paying to Yahoo! has dropped 90% (from $47.5 billion to $4 billion to $5 billion, according to Bernstein's Jeff Lindsay), and Yahoo!'s stock price has dropped 47%.

And, what's with the heavy "me" and "I" references in her explanations? I was under the impression that turning around a $20 billion company was a team sport.

These mistakes aside, the real blame here lies at the feet of the Yahoo! directors who have served on the board for the entire time that Yahoo! has failed miserably in search -- the most lucrative non-monopolistic business that modern business has ever known. Yahoo! has had plenty of chances to dominate this space for the last decade and has missed every one.

Yahoo! built its own search engine, which was the original mission of the company; the directors decided to outsource it to a then unknown company called Google, giving Google huge name recognition because of Yahoo!'s traffic; Yahoo! later determined search was a valuable business itself and paid $235 million for Inktomi in 2002, and $1.6 billion for Overture, which created paid search before Google created AdWords, in 2003; and the directors trusted Semel and Decker's promises that "Project Panama" would close the gap between Yahoo! and Google. Yahoo!'s search share is below 20% and the directors have now decided to shut down all internal search development and hand the keys over to Microsoft.

There are five Yahoo! directors who've sat in on all the deliberations about search in the last eight years: current Chairman Roy Bostock, Ron Burkle, Arthur Kern, Eric Hippeau, and Gary Wilson. Where is the accountability here? Why must Semel, Decker, and Yang face the music for strategic decisions that didn't pan out, while these five men avoid all scrutiny and criticism? It's an embarrassment for Yahoo! and each of these men's corporate reputations that they are still there.

We can't always be right, but each of these men has endorsed failure too many times to still retain a job as a fiduciary for Yahoo! shareholders.

-- Written by Eric Jackson in Naples, Fla.

At the time of publication, Jackson's fund had a long position in Microsoft.

Eric Jackson is founder and president of Ironfire Capital and the general partner and investment manager of Ironfire Capital US Fund LP and Ironfire Capital International Fund, Ltd.

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