Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Yahoo!'s Bartz Provides Hope

06/24/09 - 09:03 AM EDT


Eric Jackson

Yahoo!(YHOO Quote) holds its annual meeting Thursday and, unlike the previous two meetings, I'm not attending this year. It's not that I think the company is doing such a great job; it's that I sold all my shares in Yahoo! last September after being dismayed by the poor decisions being made by the board and senior management despite the company's many assets.

I didn't hold out much hope that the board would make the necessary changes to get the company back on track, after listening to it justify turning down Microsoft's(MSFT Quote) buyout offer last year and ignoring the high number of protest votes cast against the re-election of several directors in the prior two years.

But I do have to give the Yahoo! board credit in one regard: It hired a great CEO in Carol Bartz, and I believe she is doing all the right things since she came aboard to turn this company around. If she is allowed to execute the turnaround path she's on (and, really, why wouldn't she be although I wouldn't put it past Yahoo!'s board based on its track record?), Yahoo!'s stock has a much better chance of outperforming Google's (GOOG Quote) in the next two years, even if Google's operating performance and search dominance continue apace.

With Bartz, what's not to like about her turnaround focus? I went back to the "Plan B" I put forward -- with the support of other retail investors -- to Yahoo!'s board in early 2007 and it appears that a majority of these changes have now happened or are in the process of taking place. It also was refreshing to hear Bartz say recently that she agreed with the "Peanut Butter Manifesto" -- an internal Yahoo! memo that went public in late 2006 that called for much greater focus and simplification of overlapping efforts at the company.

Bartz hasn't let what I believe is a poor board of directors get in her way. For this reason, I was intrigued by her comments on Sunday to the Stanford Business School's Director's College. Bartz was full of opinions on what makes for a good board, with as many barbs tossed in the direction of sleepy directors as shareholder activists. The highlights were published by Barron's and offer a refreshingly candid viewpoint of a CEO on the topic of what makes boards work.

Here's where I think Bartz is right and where she's off-base.

Where she's right:

1. Getting a board of "high achievers" to work together well is tough.

Take any big company board and you'll find a gold-plated list of directors. These individuals haven't been asked to serve because they've been great team players. Typically, they've accomplished a lot. Throw six to eight "doers" into a room and ask them to get a task done as a team and they'll lurch around because no one has been appointed the clear leader and they all have an inherent bias to "jump in" and "fix" the situation. Throw into the mix that this is a team that only meets six times a year and you have a situation where a rhythm for working together never has a chance to develop.

In my view, without clear board leadership -- perhaps because there is no independent chairman, no lead director, or weak ones -- the pecking order of the group gets determined by a combination of who is favored by the CEO, board tenure, or dominant personality. Those factors don't translate into the most effective board discussions and decisions.

2. "We should have less middle-aged white guys."

Bartz pointed out that this narrow demographic makes up the vast majority of boards today. She spoke in favor of more diversity, but "not necessarily more women." (In fact, she discussed how one board tried to recruit her earlier in her career because it was "probably just looking for a skirt.")

I agree with her that it shouldn't matter if a director is named Jane, or John, or that he or she is this type or that type of person. What matters most is how that person will contribute to board meetings behind closed doors. The person needs to have a solid base of business and industry experience to knowledgeably examine and debate issues. Beyond that, diverse viewpoints can lead to better decisions if they help better analyze decisions. Unfortunately, Sarbanes-Oxley or stock exchange requirements define terms like "board independence" which lead to "middle-aged white guy" boards or diverse boards lacking sufficient industry experience.

3. Industry experience is a "must have" for any director.

Directors without industry experience are going to be less involved at board meetings. They are not going to want to make a comment or ask a question that might make them appear stupid. As a result, you can have an impeccably "independent" collection of directors surrounding insiders on a board, without any ability to advise or question those insiders about the business. This does no good for anyone -- unless those directors are well-paid and could care less about adding value or the insiders prefer lapdog directors.

"Industry experience" shouldn't limit directors to those who spent the majority of their careers working in that industry, but they must know enough about that industry to add value to any board discussion.

4. Have three hours of nothing planned at board meetings.

Bartz warns against the perils of over-structured and over-managed meetings. In my opinion, this is a common problem most boards have in which there is no opportunity to really debate issues, because too many "business updates" and "issue approvals" have been scheduled. Sometimes, the most valuable parts of board meetings happen during the unstructured discussions which occur in smaller side meetings or over lunch. There is great value in unstructured time during these meetings (although you must guard against the flip side of too much endless loop discussions resulting in no decisions).

Here's where I think Bartz is off-base:

1. "'Shareholder activism' is a simple but stupid concept."

What I think she's getting at in this comment is that she believes no two shareholders are the same. Everyone wants something a little different. At the Yahoo! annual meeting last August, people lined up to comment on, among other things, how (a) the board and management oversaw poor performance and inexplicably turned down the now-generous looking Microsoft offer, (b) Yahoo! didn't do enough to further human rights in China, (c) Yahoo!'s management had been unfairly criticized, and (d) Yahoo!'s fantasy sports content was fantastic and they should "keep it up."

Bartz was implying that anyone claiming to be a "shareholder activist" is really misrepresenting his own vested interests and those of the larger group. In my view, Bartz has a clear idea of where she wants to go as a manager and doesn't like anyone -- whether it's an incompetent director or misguided shareholder -- getting in her way. Sure, shareholders are a "big tent" -- just like political parties -- but they all follow certain universal truths, such as wanting to see the stock price go up (whether you're in a union, a pension holder, or an employee). She shouldn't paint activists with one brush, just as she goes out of her way to remind us that commentators shouldn't call her "old" because she's 60.

2. Get more current executives to serve on boards.

Bartz's solution to the "middle-aged white guy" problem is to get more executives from other companies to serve on boards. This would not only include CEOs but other senior talent coming up through the ranks that would bring more youthful perspectives with industry experience. I worry that these executives are already too overloaded by their day jobs and, although they'd likely want to add a few directorships to beef up their resumes, they would find it difficult keep up with the needed prep work, travel and participation in board and committee meetings.

These more youthful members of a board might also find it difficult to sit on the Cisco(CSCO Quote) board (as Bartz did when she met Jerry Yang) and challenge John Chambers, for example, about assumptions he was baking into next year's budget. In some ways, Sue Decker is a cautionary tale of the solution Bartz is proposing to the problem of narrow boards.

Decker, the former Yahoo! president, never really was able to get the company turned around successfully and yet kept piling on more board seats, including Intel(INTC Quote), Costco(COST Quote) and Berkshire Hathaway(BRK.A Quote)). As a Yahoo! shareholder during her tenure, I wished she'd never taken on any outside board seats and simply done her job, the remains of which Bartz is now trying to clean up.

From where I sit, Carol Bartz is doing all the right things as an operator of Yahoo! I hope she also will transpose many of her good ideas on corporate governance to the Yahoo! board, which could sorely use them.

Note: A new shareholder rights group called the Shareowner Education Network will be launched in Washington on Thursday, backed by some of the largest pension funds in the country. It will support issues such as promoting a shareowners bill of rights, mutual fund reform and proxy voting education. What's different about this group is that it's particularly focused on education and engaging retail shareholders as a group on these issues.

At the time of publication, Jackson was long 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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