Yahoo (NASDAQ:YHOO) hired Carol Bartz in early 2009 to right the struggling media giant. The hard-charging Bartz moved quickly, upending the Yahoo org chart, imposing a near-secretive culture on the Silicon Valley company and slashing 675 jobs or 5% of staffers on top of the 1,600 laid off the year before she took the helm.
The result? Yahoo is no better off than when Bartz took over. Yahoo stock traded at $12.10 on Jan. 13, 2009, when Bartz took over. As of yesterday’s close (before Wall Street cheered the CEO’s firing and bid up shares), YHOO was at $12.91 for a nearly 6% gain. The Dow is up about 23% by contrast in the same period. Revenue has also seen a slow decline year-over-year from fiscal 2009 to 2010, with another projected slide for this year too.
Not surprisingly, Carol Bartz is out despite a year left on her contract. But now the question on everyone’s mind now is, “Can anyone save Yahoo?”
It admittedly is a difficult task. Yahoo stock had briefly traded for over $40 a share in 2005 and by 2008 had slumped into single digits as low as $9 a share. That would have been bad enough, had YHOO not spurned what now appears to be the deal of the century — a $31-per-share buyout offer from Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), based on pre-Lehman Brothers valuations, that would have totaled $44.6 billion.
As for where Yahoo goes from here, the best thing it can hope for could be a buyout akin to the Microsoft deal — albeit a drastically discounted one from that sweet 2008 offer. MSFT itself could be a suitor again, based on the fact that Microsoft and Yahoo reached a deal in 2009 after the failed merger. A joint venture plugged MSFT search capabilities known as “Bing” into Yahoo’s network of sites in exchange for some search ad revenue.
It was a bitter pill for Yahoo to kill its once-leading search services, but at least as a duo Microsoft and Yahoo could hope to stave off Google together longer than they could apart. Perhaps there still is sense in a Yahoo-Microsoft merger, though admittedly it simply would be a bid at creating a greater reach in an increasingly outdated market. The “portal” website biz is slowly shrinking as social media and mobile devices replace homepages like yahoo.com.
There could be other buyers beyond Microsoft, too, either in full or in part. Yahoo has divested a few well-known divisions under Bartz, including the 2010 sales of career site HotJobs.com and the bookmarking site del.icio.us. There may be parts left to deal.
There’s even a chance Yahoo could be a buyer itself. The company wasn’t much for deal-making under Bartz, making a handful of low-profile buyouts for a few hundred million dollars in total. The company still is sitting on over $2.5 billion in cash and short-term investments, so it could make a move.
But all this may just end up being more shouting at the wind. Bartz was brought in for her tough attitude and can-do spirit, but Yahoo fortunes changed little. Perhaps her most lasting legacy will be her $47.2 million salary in 2010 that landed her a spot atop the most overpaid executives list. Not an auspicious end.
For industry insiders, the departure of Bartz is perhaps the most recent and most telling sign that the tech industry has dramatically shifted in the past few years away from many first-generation players like Yahoo and AOL (NYSE:AOL) into the hands of social media upstarts like Facebook and mobile devices leaders like Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL).
Yes, the company’s network of sites may still garner an impressive share of overall display advertising, by some estimates as much as 17% of the total market as of 2010. An ambitious partnership with Gannett (NYSE:GCI) broadcast TV stations and its flagship USA TODAY newspaper could yield gains in the future, too. And yes, Yahoo is soundly profitable and hasn’t posted a quarterly loss since Q4 of 2008 when all heck was breaking loose amid the financial crisis.
But the firing of Carol Bartz shows that it’s going to take a lot more than the status quo to make Yahoo relevant again and tap into future growth.
Jeff Reeves is editor of InvestorPlace.com. As of this writing, he did not own a position in any of the stocks named here. Follow him on Twitter via @JeffReevesIP and become a fan of InvestorPlace on Facebook.