Yahoo has been cranking out the corporate drama for the better part of its decade-long slide, says Bloomberg Businessweek. But nothing compares with the sacking of Carol Bartz. It was the company's equivalent of Macbeth: "gruelling, emotional, bloody and riveting". After being summarily fired as chief executive by phone, Bartz, 63, took revenge in customary salty style. Describing the Yahoo board as a losing bunch of "doofuses" who "fucked me over", in an interview with Fortune magazine, she relayed her response to the quaking chairman as he read his legally prepared script down the line. "Why don't you have the balls to tell me yourself?"
"If there were any correlation whatsoever between cursing and profits, Carol Bartz would never have been fired," says Gawker.com. As "potty-mouthed" as she is abrasive, it became a game among journalists to see how quickly they could needle her into a storm of expletives.
Yet Bartz was never the turnaround chief Yahoo needed. Appointed in 2009, after founder Jerry Yang turned down a $45bn acquisition offer from Microsoft, she slashed costs and staff, but failed to stop the drift. Once the world's largest search engine, Yahoo, and its advertising revenues, is " being eaten alive" by Google and Facebook, says The Guardian.
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On paper, Bartz must have seemed the perfect candidate for a company whose name (derived from Swift's Gulliver's Travels) means "rude, unsophisticated and uncouth". Raised in Minnesota, she became one of America's most-admired businesswomen a "weathered" veteran of the 1970s gender battles, says The Economist. Having resigned from the manufacturing conglomerate 3M, after being denied promotion on grounds that "women don't do these jobs", she moved into the IT industry eventually landing the top job at Autodesk, where she remoulded an "aimless" PC software maker into a dominant player.
Bartz was quick to showcase her particular brand of discipline at Yahoo, saying she would "drop-kick to fucking Mars" any employee who stepped out of line. The new job also coincided with a diagnosis of breast cancer. She was back at work full time within a month of surgery. Many saw her task of reinventing Yahoo as "job impossible" (see below), says the FT. Morale wasn't helped by the culture clash between Bartz and her shell-shocked employees. But it was her personal feud with Jack Ma, the founder of Yahoo's key Chinese co-venture Alibaba, that was the final straw for many shareholders. Bartz stands to lose a fortune if Yahoo proves her outburst breaks the "non-disparagement clause" in her termination contract. But she probably wouldn't care, says BusinessInsider.com. Paid $15m last year and $47m in 2009, she may decide forfeiting $10m in severance pay is a price worth paying for the satisfaction of getting her own back.
Ill-judged exit, or a brave blow to corporate omerta?
Did Carol Bartz deserve to be fired? Maybe, says Ian King in The Times. But the euphoric reaction of Yahoo's shareholders is "inexplicable". Perhaps some still dream that the old Web 1.0 dinosaur can enact a second coming as radical as Apple's (there's talk of a blood transfusion via the purchase of a hot-shot Web 2.0 outfit, such as Groupon). But they're living in la-la-land. Yahoo might still be the world's fourth most-visited website, but its ongoing identity crisis and "basic dysfunctionality" make it a lousy bet. Their best hope is that Bartz's departure hastens the sale of Alibaba and Yahoo Japan, paving the way for a speedy "low-ball private-equity bid".
Meanwhile, America's corporate management geeks are debating whether Bartz was justified in taking such dramatic retaliatory action, says David Streitfield in The New York Times. Some argue she struck a blow for transparency by breaking the omerta usually surrounding sackings. Others lambast her selfishness. But if Bartz has hurt Yahoo, the chairman Roy Bostock has only has himself to blame, says Alexander Chancellor in The Guardian. Nobody likes being sacked, but "people feel almost as strongly about the manner in which it is done". "He should have conducted the dismissal of his chief executive with all the ceremony her dignity required."
Yet in staging the most "intemperate and ill-judged exit interview... I have ever seen", Bartz surely shredded what was left of her dignity, says Lucy Kellaway in the FT. It's always a mistake for CEOs to use the f-word in public unless they're "40 years younger than Mrs Bartz and in the music industry". And it's questionable whether she would have enjoyed being fired any better had Bostock looked her in the eye and said: "you're no good". Given Bartz's reputation, you can understand why he chose to wield the axe remotely: had he confronted her in person, "everyone might have been hacked to death".
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