By Jon Fortt
August 31, 2007

Yahoo (YHOO) watchers are familiar with Susan Decker, the company’s president and the heir-apparent to the CEO suite. But after this week’s management shakeup, many are probably wondering: Who is Hilary Schneider?

Schneider, an affable former newspaper executive who joined Yahoo just a year ago, might seem to have come out of nowhere. Still, the reorganization leaves no doubt about her new clout: She now heads the Global Partner Solutions division, which includes all ad sales and basically every publisher relationship Yahoo has. That makes Schneider the most important field general at Yahoo, the person most clearly responsible for making sure the dollars come in the door.

What’s less obvious from Schneider’s bio on Yahoo’s website is that she and Decker are very similar. Not only are they about the same age – both women are in their mid 40s – both are also Harvard MBAs who were econ majors at elite New England colleges before they earned their stripes on Wall Street. Before Decker became a Silicon Valley executive, she was a highly rated stock analyst with Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, where she specialized in media and advertising companies. Schneider, meanwhile, was an investment banker at Drexel Burnham Lambert, where she also specialized in media companies.

NOT THE SAME

But there are also notable differences between the two. Most important, Schneider has actually run a traditional media company. As a senior vice president at Knight Ridder, a newspaper chain that McClatchy (MNI) bought last year, she was one of two executives in line for the CEO seat. Several publishers from the largest newspapers in the chain reported to her, as did the online division. (I worked for the San Jose Mercury News, which reported to Schneider.)

From that vantage, Schneider got a unique look at some of the challenges she now faces at Yahoo. As a newspaper executive, she struggled with how to leverage a local paper’s strengths in a digital world where companies like Google (GOOG) and Yahoo had the biggest audience and the smartest engineers. Now that she’s at Yahoo, Schneider has access to plenty of engineers – and she also has the know-how to convince traditional media companies that teaming up with Yahoo is in their best interest.

If Schneider can convince newspapers to do that, it could be very good for Yahoo. Taken together, the nation’s newspapers have strong brands and loyal local audiences. They also have something that Yahoo alone can’t match: payrolls full of local experts who keep tabs on crime, schools, government and more.

PARTNER POWER

Now that Yahoo, Google and Microsoft (MSFT) are clamoring anew to win the battle for online display advertising, newspapers have a special allure. If Yahoo can partner with the right newspapers, the company could potentially have access to a treasure trove of information about its audience’s interests, including whether readers are into sports, business, obituaries or education. That data could then be used to serve up ads to the people who are most likely to be interested in them. Eventually, that could mean happier advertisers, and more money in Yahoo’s coffers.

Schneider herself may be uniquely positioned to make these partnerships happen. She has the rare quality of being a numbers person who also knows how to speak the language of journalism. At Knight Ridder, where newsrooms pegged some corporate executives as bean counters who didn’t appreciate the importance of journalism, Schneider won over quite a few editors and publishers.

But there’s a lot of work to do before Yahoo and Schneider get to reap the potential rewards from those kinds of partnerships. To be most effective at Yahoo, Schneider will have to win over the leaders of her divisions, including the salespeople who until this week reported to departing sales chief Gregory Coleman. Schneider might also have to win the respect of engineers who would be suspicious of her background – unlike Decker, she doesn’t have a double major in computer science.

If Schneider can pull it off the partnerships, though, she’ll have done something else that Susan Decker never did.

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