Carol Bartz is friggin' interesting

September 15, 2009: 6:22 PM ET

The Yahoo CEO offers candid views on life post-retirement -- and dealing with activist shareholders

Bartz has no regrets about joining Yahoo. Photo: Yahoo

Bartz has no regrets about joining Yahoo. Photo: Yahoo

At Fortune's Most Powerful Women conference in Carlsbad, Calif., Yahoo (YHOO) CEO Carol Bartz didn't talk much tech but didn't disappoint.

In characteristically blunt language that was peppered with not-quite-explicit words like "friggin' " and "damn" (she declined to talk about the way she talks, telling interviewer Andy Serwer: "I don't think it's that interesting, personally") Bartz recalled her her nearly nine-month tenure at one of the Internet's pioneering brands.

She ticked off the questions her friends asked her when she made the decision to come out of retirement (she was CEO of Autodesk (ADSK) for 14 years) to take the helm at struggling Yahoo.

Why are you coming back? Why Yahoo? What are going to to do about Microsoft (MSFT) and search and what are you going to do about Carl? (Ichan had gained a board seat at Yahoo and had been agitating for change.) "My friends said, 'are you friggin' crazy?'"

She answered all four questions for the 300-plus women assembled at the Four Seasons Aviara.

Flunking retirement

On coming back, Bartz admits she was a failure as a retiree. She grew restless playing golf and vacationing in Hawaii. Cocktail hour moved from 6 p.m. to 4 p.m.

On taking on the Yahoo challenge: "I can actually do this and have fun." She acknowledges she wasn't prepared for the scrutiny the consumer-facing company receives, but she told the audience that accepting the post "was the best thing I've ever done other than having my daughter, who was 21 yesterday."

Carol and Steve and Carl

On search, Bartz elaborated on the deal she struck in July with Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer  whereby the software giant will power Yahoo search, and Yahoo's sales force will manage relationships for both companies' premium search advertisers.

Bartz says Yahoo isn't ceding its ability to create a unique search experience for its customers. She maintains the company can enhance the search engine provided by Microsoft; it will free up Yahoo to do "what we do best, which is great content and great user experience."

As for Icahn, Bartz was diplomatic, perhaps surprisingly so. "He's a very smart man who has a dominant point of view on things," she says. "If you listen, really really listen, you can have a relationship.

"For a shareholder to come in and be that interested there is some inherent truth to why they're there. "

She did reveal that Icahn can be quite persistent. "That man can call about 12 times a day," she deadpanned. "He's totally capable (of that). "

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Stephanie Mehta
Stephanie Mehta
Deputy Managing Editor , Fortune

Stephanie N. Mehta is the deputy managing editor at Fortune, overseeing technology coverage for Fortune. She also is a co-chair of the annual Brainstorm Tech conference, an annual gathering of tech and media thinkers. Previously, Mehta spent seven years as a tech writer at Fortune covering the telecom and media industries. She also has worked for the Wall Street Journal and the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va.

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