Bartz as Yahoo CEO? New job, but strong resume

Sure, selling software is different from selling ads. But Yahoo has more need for fresh eyes and new leadership than for media expertise.

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Stephen Shankland
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Updated 2:09 p.m. PDT to note that Bartz has officially replaced Jerry Yang as CEO.

Carol Bartz, Autodesk's executive chairman and Yahoo's new chief executive, is by most accounts a strong, smart manager familiar with running a large company.

The big question for the successor to outgoing Chief Executive Jerry Yang, though, is how well her experience nurturing growth at a computer-aided design software company will transfer to the job of turning around an embattled media company.

Carol A. Bartz
Carol A. Bartz Autodesk

Analysts scrutinizing the situation, though, are more bullish on Bartz than worried about her media chops.

"Bartz (is not) someone who brings a lot of Web experience to Yahoo, but there's plenty of that to go around at the once-iconic Web portal. What the company lacks is a firm business leader that can instill confidence in Wall Street, major partners, advertisers as well as Yahoo employees," said Gartner Group's Allen Weiner in a blog posting.

And Bartz could consummate the Microsoft deal that Yang and his allies rebuffed, added Collins Stewart analyst Sandeep Aggarwal. "Yahoo has a very strong bench strength of top executives, including two co-founders. Perhaps the only near-term catalyst (for the stock price) is a deal with Microsoft. So Yahoo needed a CEO who buys a likely search deal with Microsoft at a philosophical level," Aggarwal said in an interview. "We think Carol likely fits that requirement."

Earlier Tuesday, we reported that Yahoo had extended Bartz an offer to replace Yang as CEO, and The Wall Street Journal had reported that she would accept it. Representatives from Yahoo and Autodesk didn't comment at that time.

At Yahoo, she'll have her work cut out for her. The Internet pioneer has suffered in recent years, with revenue growth eclipsed by Google's search-ad business and two major layoffs in 2008. Yang's year-and-a-half-long attempt to turn the company around, including a major rewiring called the Yahoo Open Strategy intended to increase activity on the site, began arriving just as the economy plunged into the abyss.

What's not clear is whether Bartz is the type of person who would be more inclined to sell Yahoo or its assets or rebuild from its current business. At Autodesk, she chose the latter route.

"Her vision was more about expanding into growth opportunities," said former Autodesk director Larry Wangberg, who worked with Bartz for years when she was CEO and chairman. "One example is Autodesk's international initiatives. She not only went after the obvious markets overseas but also ones which weren't as well known. Now the international markets make up a large portion of Autodesk's business."

Top-ranking exec
Bartz draws lavish praise for her years at Autodesk, earlier as CEO, and now executive chairman.

"She has this enormous capability to make things happen," Wangberg said. "She is very powerful, in a quiet way, and a results-oriented CEO who is equally comfortable talking to technologists (or to) businesspeople such as (those) in marketing or on Wall Street."

"The genius she had for the Autodesk years was a really good blend of a hard edge with a sensible personality the employees rallied around. She was able to make the tough decisions," said Renny Ponvert, a senior analyst with Management CV, whose firm ranks nearly 3,000 executives based on those executives' performance over 10 years.

Bartz, 60, gets the top score on the firm's scale of 1 to 5: "In terms of shareholder returns, net revenue growth, and generation of consistent operating income, she's definitely one of the best in the world," Ponvert said. In comparison, Yang is in the bottom fifth, he added

Right now, Yahoo's problem isn't a shortage of people with media experience. It's a need for fresh eyes to rationally assess what the company should and shouldn't be doing--someone who's not wedded to any particular project.

"It's good to have an outsider come in, because I think they're going to have to make some difficult decisions," said Technology Business Research analyst Allan Krans.

Lou Gerstner famously turned IBM around after coming from a dramatically different industry, RJR Nabisco. Outsiders aren't a miracle cure, though. Indeed, Yang's predecessor at Yahoo, Terry Semel, came out of Hollywood, and his attempt to transform Yahoo couldn't respond to Google's clout. John Sculley came from Pepsi to lead Apple, but it was perhaps the ultimate insider, Steve Jobs, who bore responsibility for that company's current strength.

Though Yahoo needs top leadership more than it needs another ad sales executive, media companies are different from those that sell technology, and Bartz would have to quickly come to terms with a new and complicated world.

"She's smart and she's tough, but Yahoo's a media company," said Forrester analyst David Card. "I think Yahoo's future depends on it cultivating some of the things it has. One of the things it has is relationships with other publishers, ad agencies, and marketers. It's building out the Yahoo network, but it's not a software problem."

The transition from software to media is one challenge. Another is the transition to a company focused on hundreds of millions of ordinary people. "The risk is not in her ability as an executive, the risk is whether she will get it with (Yahoo's) consumer domain," said Jon Holman of executive recruiting firm The Holman Group.

Who is Carol Bartz?
Bartz spent 14 years as Autodesk's CEO before becoming executive chairman in April 2006. Before Autodesk, she worked at Sun Microsystems, 3M, and Digital Equipment Corp., so she's seen the tech industry from several perspectives. And for some more breadth, she's on the boards of Intel, Cisco Systems, and Network Appliance.

Bartz has ventured outside the straight business realm, too. She's a board member at the Foundation for the National Medals of Science and Technology, was inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame in 1997, and served on President Bush's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. And she's been outspoken about being a breast cancer survivor.

More telling about her style, though, is an anecdote from her history at Autodesk with its current CEO, Carl Bass, who came to the company through an acquisition.

"They were having tough times. She fired him," Ponvert said. "She had the courage to realize two months later that she desperately needed him. She hired him back, and he became her hand-chosen successor."

People at Bartz's level, with famously big egos, are even more reluctant than usual to admit their mistakes, but to her credit, Bartz was willing, Ponvert said. She also coped well with hard times at Autodesk during 2000 and 2001 when the tech bubble burst.

Another asset Bartz would bring to Yahoo: international experience. Autodesk's computer-aided design software is bought where growth is occurring, and that means Bartz has skills in emerging markets, not just established ones, said Technology Business Research analyst Ezra Gottheil. "She would know more about Asia, about China, about emerging markets, than the average software CEO," he said.

Yahoo is by no means out of the woods, but Yang has done some of the thankless, grinding work of repositioning the company. At Yahoo, Bartz would get to take advantage of that.

"She would be the perfect executive to rewrap the box and make it an attractive operating entity as well as takeover target," Ponvert said. "Right now perception is that Yahoo is damaged goods. Carol could polish that up and make it a sought-after property."

CNET News staff writer Dawn Kawamoto contributed to this report.