Seeking relics amid Webvan's ruins

The defunct online grocer was always an oversized dot-com, so it figures that a bankruptcy auction of its assets would be oversized as well.

4 min read
FOSTER CITY, Calif.--From its $1 billion warehouse order to the generous severance it gave to its former chief executive, Webvan was always an oversized dot-com. So it figures that a bankruptcy auction of its assets would be oversized as well.

In what auctioneer DoveBid is billing as the "auction of the year," Webvan auctioned off a portion of its remaining assets at its former headquarters here Tuesday. The two-day auction drew hundreds of bidders and gawkers looking for deals on computers, office furniture and even a basketball hoop.

Among the items that caught the eye of San Jose, Calif., resident Wanda Washington were an iMac computer, a hardwood oval table and a Herman Miller Aeron chair.

"They've got some nice things in there," Washington said. "They've got so much, it's overwhelming."

The number of items up for auction is far greater than that of most of the auctions DoveBid has done, said Craig Duey, a senior project manager at the company who is helping oversee the auction. Meanwhile, the number of people registered to bid is about twice what DoveBid normally sees at its auctions, Duey said.

"Most of the auctions we do, the quality is the same, but you don't see volume like this," Duey said.

Even some of the bidding was oversized. Prices were all over the place on the items, said Eric Pearce, a network manager from San Mateo, Calif. Some items were going for more than they could get on eBay, while others were fetching higher prices than they commanded at retail, Pearce and others said.

"People don't know what they are bidding on," Pearce said. "They are getting caught up in the excitement of it."

Webvan has engendered excitement almost since its founding in 1996 by former Borders Chairman Louis Borders. And among the many dot-com burnouts in the past 18 months, Webvan was one of the most spectacular.

Photo of potential bidders Once worth $8.4 billion and touted as one of the top companies in e-commerce, the Foster City, Calif.-based company burned through hundreds of millions of dollars in investor and venture capital before closing shop in July. The company's meteoric rise included a $1 billion order with Bechtel to build its warehouses, ambitious plans to expand into 26 markets in 24 months, and the $1.2 billion acquisition of chief rival HomeGrocer.com.

The burnout was a long and drawn out one for Webvan, as the company went through several rounds of layoffs, store closures and asset sales, before filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in July. Along the way, company Chief Executive George Shaheen resigned, but not before getting a golden parachute promise of $375,000 each year for the rest of his life.

Since the bankruptcy, Webvan has been busy trying to recoup money for creditors and investors. Earlier this month, the online grocer sold its technology platform and its Oakland distribution center to Kaiser Permanente for $2.65 million. Webvan has also begun referring former customers to online delivery company WhyRunOut.com.

Sun servers and a pingpong table
Much of the items for sale at the auction were the usual stuff of a high-tech business, albeit in larger quantities. On Tuesday, for instance DoveBid auctioned off more than 30 of Webvan's Sun Microsystems Enterprise 4500 servers, dozens of Compaq Proliant computers and several Cisco Systems 7513 and 7507 routers.

Among the items on sale Wednesday are more Compaq and Sun servers, about 80 21-inch ViewSonic color monitors, and 114 Herman Miller Aeron chairs.

Photo of auctioneer But Webvan is also selling a few of its eccentricities, such as the basketball hoop and a pingpong table. Also up for bid: dozens of 8-foot-by-10-foot cubicles with glass portals and heavy doors that occupants can slide closed for privacy.

"The company clearly was overspending," said Jan Easter, who went to the auction to shop for servers for an import-export business she is starting.

The Sun servers are what lured Shane Johnson up to the auction from Los Angeles. Johnson, who is the director of strategic planning for a company there, bought several servers at about 20 percent of their retail cost.

But while the servers were going for a fraction of their normal prices, other things such as a television set were going for at or more than retail prices, Johnson said.

"Some of the buyers are completely idiotic," he said.

Webvan's computer equipment also drew San Bruno, Calif., resident Barbara Elwick. Elwick said she was interested in buying some of Webvan's laptops and desktop for customers of her consulting and networking company.

"It was a dot-com company. I figured they would have the best--top-of-the-line stuff," Elwick said.

While some bidders were looking to pick up equipment for themselves or their customers, others had different reasons for attending the auction.

Pearce, for instance, was interested in buying some of Webvan's Cisco equipment to resell on eBay.

Meanwhile, Keith Thompson, one of Webvan's creditors, attended the auction to check in on the bidding to get an idea of whether he might be repaid. Owner of a printing shop in Half Moon Bay, Calif., that did $1 million worth of business with Webvan, Thompson said he is owed $40,000 by the deceased online grocer.

"They were a good customer," Thompson said of Webvan. "They went through a lot of money, but they paid their bills till the end."