The truth about Google's stock split

June 19, 2013: 6:42 AM ET

Founder control has worked for the search giant. But that doesn't mean it is necessarily a better way.

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FORTUNE -- You can't blame Google CEO Larry Page for not being consistent. As Google prepared to go public nine years ago, Page detailed in a letter to prospective investors the many ways in which Google would be unconventional. It would focus on users and on long-term results; it would have an unusual management structure; it would abide by a wacky "don't be evil" motto -- or at least, by how Page & Co. interpreted it; and it would aspire to make the world better. Oh, and if shareholders didn't like any of this, there wasn't much they could do about it: Google would have dual stock class structure that ensured that Page and co-founder Sergey Brin, as well as then CEO Eric Schmidt, would retain voting control.

A year ago, Page sought to strengthen and extend the founders' majority control, proposing a stock split that would create a new class of stock with no voting rights. The details were arcane but the effect clear: Page and Brin would continue to call the shots, even though they currently own about 15% of Google's (GOOG) equity.

Not surprisingly, advocates of shareholder rights universally panned the move. After all, the owners of Google's new shares would have few rights beyond their ability to sell their shares. A Massachusetts pension fund sued to block the split, alleging the founders and the board had breached their fiduciary duty to shareholders.

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On Sunday night, Google's board approved a proposed settlement of the lawsuit. The particulars of the settlement are complicated, but it essentially calls for Google to compensate the owners of the new class of shares if those shares fall in value below those of Google's other shares. If a court approves the plan, the stock split is likely to go forward.

Page's undemocratic style of governance has hardly been a handicap. A $1,000 investment in the company at the IPO would now be worth about $10,500. Google shares closed above $900 on Tuesday, just shy of their all-time high of $920, giving the company a market value of nearly $300 billion. Since Page announced the controversial stock split last year, shares have risen 38%. Google's shareholders may be disenfranchised, but they are not unhappy.

None of this is to say that Google has been setting a good example. When it decided on a dual-stock structure in 2004, the move was virtually unheard-of in tech. Google made it fashionable, and companies like Groupon (GRPN), Zynga (ZNGA), and Facebook (FB) followed suit, giving their founders and early investors control over their destiny. All are trading well below their offering prices. All have unhappy shareholders who now wish they hadn't placed so much faith in the wisdom of those companies' founders. There's not much they can do now to register their discontent other than, of course, sell their shares.

Google's story demonstrates that shareholder rights and returns do not necessarily go hand in hand. But the struggles of lesser tech companies suggest that Silicon Valley's bet on founder control remains fraught with peril.

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About This Author
Miguel Helft
Miguel Helft
Senior Writer, Fortune

Miguel Helft is a San Francisco-based Senior Writer at FORTUNE, where he covers Silicon Valley. He joined FORTUNE in August 2011 following a 5-year stint as a reporter at The New York Times covering companies like Apple, Facebook and Google. His knowledge of Silicon Valley and the tech world runs deep. He worked as a software engineer at Sun Microsystems in the late-1980s, and for the past 15 years, he has chronicled major industry events -- from the Microsoft antitrust trial to the dot-com boom and bust - at publications like the Industry Standard, the San Jose Mercury News and the Los Angeles Times. Born and raised in Argentina, Helft emigrated to the U.S. to attend Stanford University, where he earned a BA in Philosophy and a Master's in Computer Science.


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