'Brain drain' fears as Google loses more senior executives

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Google has lost its third senior executive in as many weeks, prompting concerns that the pioneering search engine company is suffering a "brain drain" of top talent.

The announcement that Douglas Merrill, chief information officer and architect of its e-commerce service Google Checkout, has quit to join the record company EMI comes hot on the heels of the departure of the heads of online sales and of social media, both to the upstart social networking site Facebook.

And these are only the latest in an exodus that has led to whispering that the Googleplex, the brightly coloured business park-cum-college campus where the search engine is based, may no longer be the coolest workplace in Silicon Valley.

Such was the surprise surrounding Mr Merrill's exit that Google was forced to issue a calming statement. "We have a deep bench and work hard to grow leaders within the company," a spokesman said. "We are attracting immensely talented people around the world, every day."

The spokesman added that Google gets 1,300 resumés every day – a million a year.

Just last month, tousle-haired Mr Merrill was the cover star of Fast Company magazine, which rated Google the No 1 most innovative firm to work for.

Guy Hands, the private equity boss who bought EMI last year, appeared cock-a-hoop at his new hire. "Douglas has been a key member of the management team at Google which has created more value than any other consumer internet company by focusing relentlessly on tools that enable consumers to do things more effectively," Mr Hands said. "His experience, talents and his ability to drive innovation will be enormously valuable to EMI and to its artists."

Mr Merrill is one of a string of employees at Google whose tenure pre-dates the company's flotation in 2004 and whose share options have made them rich enough to fund other ventures or to pursue any new challenge that excites them. At EMI, Mr Merrill will head the company's digital music business, which is struggling to find a way to make money in an age where young people routinely download music from file sharing sites without paying for it.

"I have two passions," he said yesterday. "One is creating platforms and tools that make it easier for consumers to achieve their goals. The other is music. This exciting new role at EMI is a unique opportunity for me to be able to put those two passions to work together."

Recruiters say that Google employees are prized across the technology industry and beyond, because the company has had a reputation for hiring the best and brightest graduates and executive talent. Since long-time insiders were able to cash in the last of their pre-flotation share options last year, it has been open season, and because Google shares have fallen by a third this year, many employees now find their latest share options underwater.

"I wouldn't push the panic button," says Kathie Lingle of the recruitment advisers World at Work. "If you are at an organisation that is successful like Google, everybody is trying to lure you away. If you are rich and successful, this is not indentured services. It is also healthy for an organisation, because if people never left there would never be chances for promotion."

The roster of Google executives jumping ship has been growing longer for most of the past year. Salman Ullah, the respected mergers and acquisitions chief, left last Oct-ober to set up in venture capital. The former head of Google Health, Adam Bosworth, is forming his own start-up. Last month, Sheryl Sandberg, vice-president for global sales and operations, left to become chief operating officer at privately-held Facebook, taking with her Ethan Beard, Google's director of social media.

Bloggers following the technology industry have compiled even longer lists of mid-level executives who have quit for smaller Silicon Valley firms, finance or for their own start-up projects.

Google's founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, have long argued that Google's relaxed campus-style atmosphere has been imp-ortant in attracting talent and in driving innovation, since it encourages employees to spend 10 per cent of their time on experimental projects that may or may not turn into new Google businesses. However, shareholder worries over rising costs have prompted sporadic attempts to instill a more disciplined management culture.