Yahoo executive faces test

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June 20, 2007|By David Streitfeld | David Streitfeld,Los Angeles Times

SAN FRANCISCO -- Susan Decker knows how to make a statement.

A few years ago, she rode into a Yahoo company meeting on a motorcycle. Her message: I'm not your typical chief financial officer.

Decker will need more than stunts in her new role as president of the Internet search company. The one-time stock analyst, an expert at scrutinizing firms from the outside, will now have to evaluate her employer of seven years from the inside and provide the leadership to reinvigorate a famous but troubled brand.

Decker will run Yahoo Inc. with company co-founder Jerry Yang, who took over Monday as chief executive from Terry S. Semel. The immediate speculation was that Yang was taking the chief executive post on a temporary basis to give Decker a little time to prove to the board and investors that she is indeed much more than typical.

The management shake-up, announced after the stock market closed, boosted Yahoo shares nearly 5 percent in after-hours trading. But Douglas Christopher, an analyst at Crowell, Weedon & Co., said the rise was "an expression of relief" that Semel was departing and not necessarily a vote of confidence in Yang or Decker.

"She's a good financial person, but whether she's a strategic leader, I don't know," said Christopher, who owns Yahoo stock.

Decker, 44, majored in computer science and economics at Tufts University, and then got an MBA at Harvard Business School. She was a star on Wall Street, specializing in media, advertising and publishing stocks - including Yahoo - at Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette. James Cramer, a former hedge fund manager and now host of a CNBC investing show, called her "the single-best advertising analyst I have ever seen."

Like many analysts, Decker heard the siren call of the dot-coms in the late 1990s. She joined Yahoo as chief financial officer in June 2000, just after the market began to crumble - and Yahoo started to stumble.

Former Yahoo executive Rob Solomon said Decker didn't fit the stereotype of CFOs, who tend to see everything from the point of view of the numbers.

"We would go in and say `Hey, let's acquire this company,'" said Solomon. "She would start by tearing it apart from a 10-year discounted cash-flow perspective. But then she would go into the strategic issues. How would they would fit into our operations? How does this fit into our story?"

Yahoo was started in 1994 by Yang and David Filo, two graduate students who wanted to organize and provide a guide to this thing called the World Wide Web. Yahoo was immediately popular in part because it was doing something no one else was doing. The company quickly became iconic.

Now its story has gotten blurry. Should it fight Microsoft Corp. for the crumbs of search that Google doesn't control? Should it try to emulate and somehow outdo social networking sites like MySpace and FaceBook?

The company's current confusion will work to Decker's advantage, predicted Ellen Siminoff, another former Yahoo executive.

"Everyone's writing stories about how Yahoo isn't doing anything right. If she does a few things right, the comparisons will be great," Siminoff said. Her first task: "She's going to have to bring in some people."

Decker, who has three children, is described by friends as an enthusiastic runner and excellent skier. "If you can imagine going fast with control, that's the kind of skier she is," said Geoff Ralston, an independent investor who worked with Decker at Yahoo.

She'll need that skill. Decker has risen rapidly - she was promoted from CFO to head of the Yahoo Advertiser and Publisher Group only six months ago - but when companies are perceived to be faltering, Wall Street tends to be merciless.

A new CEO could still be brought in from the outside, said Solomon, who now heads the travel search engine SideStep.

"The board doesn't know whether Jack Welch or Jesus Christ or Sue Decker is the right person at this time to lead Yahoo," he said. "They just know it's not Terry Semel."

David Streitfeld writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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