Marissa Mayer May Be Running Out of Options at Yahoo

December 1, 2015, 4:59 PM UTC
Fortune Global Forum 2015
FORTUNE GLOBAL FORUM Tuesday, November 3rd, 2015 2015 FORTUNE GLOBAL FORUM San Francisco, CA, USA 2:40 - 3:20 pm LEADING THE 21ST CENTURY CORPORATION With disruptive business models, increasingly complex product sets, and fast-moving global markets, corporate culture is more important than ever. The leaders of two of Silicon Valley’s most dynamic companies explain how they are leading in such critical times. Panelists: Marc Benioff, Founder, Chairman, and CEO, Salesforce Marissa Mayer, President and CEO, Yahoo Moderator: Adam Lashinsky, Fortune Photograph by Noah Berger/Fortune Global Forum
Photograph by Stuart Isett — Fortune Global Forum

The Marissa Mayer leadership saga continues, and the latest developments again look dire for our protagonist. SunTrust Robinson Humphreys analyst Robert Peck yesterday issued a report listing 10 possible successors for Mayer as CEO of Yahoo. The report by itself might not have meant much; speculating about CEO succession is a favorite spectator sport on Wall Street. The bad news is that Yahoo (YHOO) stock went up, apparently in response to Peck’s report.

The bigger picture is that a consensus seems to be forming around the view that Mayer’s rescue plan for the company isn’t working. Most notably, many of the company’s high-level executives are bailing, more than a dozen of them in the past year. At least three media outlets (Re/code, the WSJ, and Forbes) have reported independently that at a meeting of top managers in October, Mayer demanded that they promise to stay with the company for the next three to five years. That’s a desperation move, and soon afterward, more executives quit.

Customers, which are mainly advertisers, are rendering their verdict, and it isn’t hopeful: Revenues came in way below expectations last quarter, and the company cut its forecast of revenue for this quarter. Operating profit plunged last quarter as the company continues to spend big on implementing Mayer’s strategy, which is costing more than it’s bringing in. That pattern isn’t always bad; new strategies often start out that way. But Mayer has been CEO for three-and-a-half years now, and the Internet is a fast moving environment. At this point you’d expect at least a few more encouraging signs. Her stated outlook for the business suggests she doesn’t have any strategic bullets left to fire.

Which is why the most important constituents determining Mayer’s fate, investors, also seem to be concluding that the game is pretty well lost. Virtually all of Yahoo’s market cap is accounted for by the value of its holdings of Alibaba and Yahoo Japan plus its net cash. Its operating businesses are worth almost nothing, investors say. The market reaction to Robert Peck’s report yesterday is the latest sign that investors have had enough. Mayer could apparently join that exclusive club of former CEOs—Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer and Abercrombie & Fitch’s Mike Jeffries are other members—who announce that they’re stepping down with no successor named, and the stock goes up.

Is it possible that Mayer herself believes the Yahoo rescue story is nearing its end? Absolutely nothing she has said publicly would suggest so; to the contrary, she remains stridently upbeat. But she has hired the McKinsey consulting firm, reportedly for advice on where to cut costs, where to invest, and what to sell. That could be step two in unwinding the business, step one being the planned spin-off of the Alibaba and Yahoo Japan holdings into a separate entity, as urged by activist investor Jeffrey Smith of Starboard Value Fund.

In that scenario, Mayer wouldn’t be replaced as CEO. She would be the last CEO. We’re still a long way from any of that happening. But if it’s true that saving a troubled Internet company is impossible, as many in Silicon Valley believe, then it could be the best outcome for Yahoo’s long suffering shareholders.

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