Roy Bostock

Post-Bartz, Yahoo faces familiar problems

September 7, 2011: 7:15 AM ET

The firing of CEO Carol Bartz represents an unusually bold move by a board widely criticized as timid and ineffective. But two and a half years after she arrived, Yahoo faces many of the same problems it had before.

By Miguel Helft

Yahoo signFORTUNE -- Back in June 2007, Yahoo appeared to be rudderless. Its business was slowing, morale was low and many of its key executives were leaving. Yet its board told shareholders during their annual meeting that it strongly backed its chief executive, Terry Semel. A week later, Semel was out as C.E.O. (He remained non-executive chairman for about six months.)

Fast-forward four years to this June, when Yahoo (YHOO) was still muddling through, and its management was unable to reignite growth or to articulate a clear vision for the business. Yet Roy Bostock, Yahoo's chairman, told shareholders that Carol Bartz, the C.E.O, was doing a stellar job. Now Bartz is out.

The similarities between the two departures end there. Semel resigned, though he faced pressure from unhappy shareholders. Bartz was fired unceremoniously –- Bostock broke the news to her via phone. She did not sound pleased. In an email to Yahoo's entire staff, which she quickly tapped out on her iPad, she wrote: "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."

Her firing represents an unusually bold action by a board that has been widely criticized as timid and ineffective. The same board stood idly by Semel, who presided over the beginning of Yahoo's decline. It stood idly by Semel's successor, co-founder Jerry Yang, who fought a lucrative takeover bid by Microsoft (MSFT), a decision that was seen as disastrous by shareholders. And after Yang resigned, it stood by Bartz for two-and-a-half years, even as investors grew more and more dispirited.

Bartz shook things up early on, shedding non-core businesses, cutting costs, streamlining operations and deciding to outsource part of its Internet search operations to Microsoft. But she seemed to run out of ideas for how to turn the company around. Her famously blunt remarks and salty language were received as breath of fresh air initially, but ended up wearing thin on shareholders and even some of Yahoo's own business partners in Asia, with whom Bartz clashed repeatedly.

When Bartz took over in January of 2009, Yahoo faced a handful of major problems. It was losing share of the lucrative search advertising business to Google (GOOG); it had missed opportunities to buy fast growing sites like Facebook and YouTube, which were attracting younger users; its display advertising business, one of its crown jewels, was under siege by ad networks and under pressure from the economic downturn; morale among employees was low and shareholders, still angry over the collapse of merger talks with Microsoft, were impatient.

Two and a half years later, Yahoo faces pretty much the same problems. Its share of the advertising business, which accounts for the majority of Yahoo's revenue, has continued to slip and the trend is not expected to reverse any time soon. The company has long ceased to be seen as a top innovator and its stock has languished.

So what's Yahoo's plan? It seems that the board is not so sure. It fired Bartz without a successor on hand, naming Tim Morse, the chief financial officer, as interim C.E.O. And when it comes to strategy, well, the board named a team of five senior executives to assist Morse in "a comprehensive strategic review."

Yahoo, of course, remains one of the most valuable Internet media properties, with some 600 million people using its sites or services every month. It's market value was more than $16 billion, and that was before shares jumped more than six percent in after hours trading Tuesday, following news of Bartz's firing. Yahoo also has valuable stakes in China's Alibaba Group and in Yahoo Japan. So you can expect investment bankers and other advisors to visit the company's headquarters in Sunnyvale, Calif., to talk about selling those assets, which Yahoo has considered before. That's likely to be the easy part. But no one -- certainly no one at Yahoo -- seems to have figured how to stop the long, agonizing decline of an erstwhile Internet giant.

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