Stephen Foley: Some 'adult supervision' will ensure Page keeps Google's fortune safe
Saturday 22 January 2011
US Outlook: Has Google just picked the wrong chief executive? Eric Schmidt, the Silicon Valley veteran who has been Obi-Wan to Larry Page's Luke Skywalker for the past decade, declared on Twitter that it was a case of "Day-to-day adult supervision no longer needed!" I'm not sure he is right about that. Without proper oversight, Larry Page could turn out to be the great squanderer of shareholders' money.
I'm casting this as a question only, as a maybe. But Google's investors will be wise to provide the adult supervision now.
Why worry? Google is a great technological university, its offices like academic campuses, its engineers the brainiest on Earth, its culture one of encouraging staff to pursue new ideas outside the scope of their jobs. It revolutionised not just search, but maps, books and email, and is trying to do the same for language translation. At the same time, it is reaping profits of $1m (£625,000) an hour from selling ads alongside search results and, increasingly, by selling display ads across the web, too.
But rolling in ungodly amounts of profit, and driven by a vision to "organise the world's information", Google has thrown shareholder money at new businesses and innovative technologies without showing the requisite amount of attention to costs, either in these new ventures or in its core advertising business. Time and again, since becoming a public company, its margins have disappointed Wall Street but investors have given it a pass because revenues have kept growing exponentially.
The quarterly results released Thursday, and overshadowed by the management reshuffle, were another case in point. Google added 1,069 new staff members in order to boost its local ad sales teams, leading to more grumbles from analysts.
A great corporate chief executive will be strong in three areas: innovation, monetisation and efficiency. No one better checks the first box than Mr Page, and with co-founder Sergey Brin and Mr Schmidt, Google's ruling triumvirate has been adept at turning their innovations into money. Mr Page is not apparently known for showing any interest in budgets, however, and this is a time when the temptation is to spend heavily trying to gain an entry into social networking and meet the challenge posed by Facebook.
Visionary founders are not inherently more likely to run amok with shareholder cash than other chief executives; if anything, less so, since they are often among the biggest shareholders themselves. The likes of Larry Ellison, of Oracle, or Michael Dell had all three of those chief executive qualities. But they needed to pay attention to efficiency, since their business relied on making the costs of their products competitive. That's not something that looms large at Google, in an era where internet companies give everything away free to their users.
Self-discipline is so much harder inside a company that is having a mini-dot.com boom all of its own. That's why adult supervision will always be needed.
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