Yahoo CEO says everything’s for sale, at a price

May 27, 2009, 9:51 PM UTC
Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz says she’ll sell, but there’s more to it than that. Photo: Yahoo

Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz, not one for mincing words, took the stage at the D7 conference in Carlsbad, Calif. on Wednesday and said yes, she is willing to sell Yahoo’s (YHOO) search business or all of Yahoo – for “boatloads” or “big boatloads” of money, respectively.

As always, the tech press ate this up.  TechCrunch’s Erick Schonfeld, a smart guy and a former colleague, called it “a softening of her public stance,” since when she arrived in January she said Yahoo was not for sale. While he’s technically right – she even said she had softened her position – I see something different in her comments.

I say Bartz still doesn’t plan on selling Yahoo, or even the search business. Why? In reporting on Bartz for a recent feature in Fortune, I got a sense of how pragmatic she is. When Bartz arrived in January, she knew she had to announce that she was there to run the company, not to break it up and sell it, as a way of defining Wall Street’s expectations. But Bartz is also a veteran executive who knows how this game is played. The truth is that in a well-managed public company, shareholders expect that everything will be for sale at a price. So her statement is probably more a statement of her philosophy than a shift in perspective.

Then there’s the matter of how she phrased this. “Boatloads” of money? Come on. That’s not the language of someone who’s looking to make a deal during a global economic bust.

Even though Microsoft (MSFT), the only likely buyer of anything Yahoo’s selling, is a very wealthy company by any standard, it’s in no position to blithely spend boatloads of money on anything these days. When Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer first offered a $45 billion boatload of money for Yahoo many moons ago, he planned to take on debt and mortgage his future profits to finance the deal. Today, with Windows and Office sales struggling in a recession, Microsoft is slashing jobs to boost a sagging stock price and praying that its upcoming Windows 7 operating system gives the company a boost. He’s looking to do a search deal with Yahoo that makes him look thrifty, not generous.

If you have any lingering doubts left about Bartz’s intentions, look at the conditions she set on any sale of Yahoo’s search business. Not only would she require boatloads of money, but also continuing access to all search-related data and the right technology. In other words she wants to “sell” it, but maintain access to the most valuable parts.

This is a great idea for more than just search, actually. It works just as well for real estate. In fact, I would like to sell my home for boatloads of money, so long as the buyer does some renovations and lets me continue to live in it. Any takers? (GOOG)