SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Yahoo Inc named PayPal President Scott Thompson as its chief executive on Wednesday, hoping the well-regarded Internet technology and e-commerce expert will replicate his success at eBay Inc and turn around the struggling company.
Thompson, credited with driving growth at eBay’s online payments division PayPal, joins Yahoo during a period of turmoil, as the company plows ahead with a strategic review in which discussions have included the possibility of being sold, taken private or broken up.
Yahoo shares finished Wednesday’s regular trading session down 3 percent at $15.78, as Wall Street assessed how Thompson’s hiring would affect the hopes of some investors that Yahoo would be sold or spin off its Asian assets, as well as how Thompson’s background fits in with Yahoo’s core online media business.
“It’s a positive outcome, but not as positive as a sale of the company,” said Lawrence Haverty, a fund manager with GAMCO investors, which owns Yahoo shares.
“The risk element is that his background was in payments. And this is not a payment company; it’s a marketing, technology company,” he said.
Thompson, a former Visa payments software platform designer, joins the company four months after the firing of previous CEO Carol Bartz as the one-time Web powerhouse Yahoo struggles to compete with newer heavyweights Google Inc and Facebook.
“I’m from Boston, we’re the underdogs since the beginning of time. Hopefully that spirit has held through. I like doing complicated, very difficult, very challenging things,” Thompson said in an interview.
Thompson, who takes over on January 9, will also join Yahoo’s board. He ran eBay’s PayPal since early 2008, and was previously its chief technology officer. Under his leadership, Yahoo said PayPal increased its user base from 50 million to more than 104 million active users. PayPal processed $29 billion in payments in the third quarter of 2011.
EBay’s shares fell 3.8 percent as analysts said the online retailer would miss the respected Internet executive.
EBay Chief Executive John Donahoe told staff in an internal memo that Thompson’s move was a “shock.”
“Scott informed me Tuesday afternoon, saying that despite his passion for PayPal, this was an opportunity he felt he had to take,” Donahoe said.
At PayPal, Thompson was known as a leader who was not afraid to make bold strategic bets. He came up with the idea of taking PayPal beyond its online stronghold and into the physical world by allowing PayPal payments in retail stores — an opportunity analysts believe could prove much bigger than its existing business.
That kind of strategic risk-taking could be particularly useful at Yahoo. The Sunnyvale, California-based company, whose services include mail, search, news and photo-sharing, was a Web pioneer that grew rapidly in the 1990s. But in recent years, Yahoo has struggled to maintain its relevance and advertising revenue in the face of competition from rivals Google and Facebook.
“They really need that push to the next level,” said Ryan Jacob, chairman and chief investment officer of Jacob Funds, which includes the Jacob Internet Fund and counts Yahoo as one of its largest positions.
“Ideally what they would do is rather than just follow where today’s Internet leaders are moving, try to really be on that front edge,” he said, citing Yahoo’s need be better positioned in mobile, social networking and other fast-growing technology trends.
During a conference call on Wednesday, Thompson cited mobile as a key area that he expected to focus on at Yahoo, and he said he viewed the company’s treasure trove data about its users as one of Yahoo’s key assets. But he said it was too early to comment on his overall vision for the company.
Yahoo Chairman Roy Bostock told analysts on the joint conference call with Thompson that Yahoo has no intention of being taken private.
“If you want to look at it in a practical way, if you and I were to sit down tomorrow and say let’s take this Company private, I think we have one hell of a challenge on our hands to do that,” said Bostock.
The decision to appoint a new CEO is not expected to impact the strategic review, which includes Yahoo’s ongoing dialogue with both China’s Alibaba Group and its Japanese affiliate to slash its stakes in the two companies, sources close to the matter said.
Under the “cash rich split” plan being discussed, Yahoo would effectively transfer most of its 40 percent slice of Alibaba back to the Chinese company and all of its stake in Yahoo Japan to Softbank Corp in return for cash and assets.
A preliminary term sheet has been drawn up that broadly outlines the deal concept, said one of the sources.
“Everyone seems to be in agreement over it,” the source said.
The question is whether a definitive agreement can be signed between the parties ahead of March 25 deadline when activist shareholders can submit director nominees to Yahoo’s board and waging a proxy battle.
Alibaba has also hired a Washington lobbying firm in a sign that the Chinese e-commerce company would be willing to make a bid for all of Yahoo in the event that talks to unwind their Asian partnership fail.
“If they can successfully complete the Asian asset transactions, in a way that is beneficial to Yahoo shareholders, I think it will buy them some time and they’ll have a chance to build for growth,” said Jacob, of the Jacob Funds.
In 2008, Yahoo rejected an unsolicited takeover bid from Microsoft Corp worth about $44 billion. Its share price was subsequently pummeled during the global financial crisis and its current market value is about $20 billion.
Co-founder Jerry Yang stepped down in late 2008 after being severely criticized by investors for his handling of the bid. The company cut thousands of jobs and later agreed to an advertising and search partnership with Microsoft.
One of Thompson’s first orders of business at Yahoo may be to try to rebuild morale inside the nearly 14,000-person company, which has been beset by layoffs, management reorganizations and a revolving door of executive departures.
The company cannot compete with hot Web companies such as Facebook and Twitter when it comes to luring the most sought-after engineers and many of the staffers within the company have tired of the seemingly endless reorganizations and lost their competitive drive, said one Yahoo employee, speaking anonymously.
“There are fundamental cultural issues, there are people who are not motivated to do big things,” the Yahoo employee said.
Thompson, 54, who speaks in a thick Boston accent, is described as calm under pressure and adept at energizing his team.
One of his signature management styles involves creating different groups, each tasked with achieving the same goal and pitting them against each other, said one PayPal manager who asked to remain anonymous.
“He’s not afraid to experiment,” the person said.
“He’ll build teams that are both going after the same thing,” the person said. The idea is “you guys go after the same thing, whoever does it better wins,” the PayPal manager explained.
Thompson said in an interview that Yahoo was in a strong position with its large user base of more than 700 million people.
“The traffic itself that these sites generate is a very big number, the collection of assets that sit below this core business I think are not well understood and clearly have tremendous opportunity to be leveraged as we look forward to the future.” (Additional reporting by Alistair Barr and Nadia Damouni; editing by Maureen Bavdek, Gunna Dickson, Bernard Orr and Andre Grenon)