SEATTLE (Reuters) - Larry Page once built an inkjet printer entirely out of Lego bricks. And now that Google is all grown up, it just might need that youthful ingenuity again.
Page’s return as chief executive of the company he co-founded 13 years ago is a sign that the maturing Internet giant is looking to recapture its original feel and edge.
The 38-year-old, whose postgraduate research on how Internet pages link to each other laid the foundations for Google in the mid-1990s, is regarded as the impatient, idea-driven force at the heart of the company.
Now, some hope he will jumpstart a company that in recent years has stumbled awkwardly on emerging Web trends such as social networking.
“A return to its roots is just what the company needs to catalyze creativity, get employees energized and start taking over markets again,” said Tricia Salinero at Silicon Valley M&A advisory firm Newforth Partners.
“As spending was curbed over the last few years, some of that Google magic was lost — employees started going to other companies and Google came in second in a lot of markets.”
Google, which Page co-founded with fellow Stanford University PhD student Sergey Brin in 1998, has had its grip on the Internet threatened by upstart social network Facebook and local discount sites such as Groupon, which Google reportedly tried to buy for $6 billion last year.
“Losing Groupon may have been the last straw,” said Salinero. “A company choosing independence over the Google mystique.”
Both Facebook and Groupon are run by founders still in their 20s, which may have caused Google to reconsider the strategy of hiring an outside CEO, as it did with former Novell Inc chief Eric Schmidt in 2001.
Schmidt announced, in a tweet, that Google no longer needs his “day-to-day adult supervision” but the idea that a “grown-up” has to step in may be losing steam — especially given the success of Facebook under Mark Zuckerberg,
“That was just how things were done back then,” said Paul Buchheit, an early Google employee credited with creating its Gmail service. “The conventional wisdom was, if you got two kids who started a company, you go ahead and hire a CEO.”
Founders are back in style at the helm.
“That’s clearly the trend for the future, that’s what most good investors look for now,” said Buchheit. “They want founders who can run the company because that’s proven to be one of the best indicators of success of the company.”
Page is probably the best CEO available, and could have done the job years ago, said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at tech research firm Enderle Group.
“He’s as much CEO material as Bill Gates was for Microsoft,” he said. “Companies like this tend to do better when one of the founders can step up.”
Page, whose style is described by industry insiders as intense but not flashy, is the heavyweight thinker whose ideas spawned the search engine that revolutionized the Internet and created an advertising market that now brings it $29 billion a year.
He went to Stanford to study computer science after getting a Bachelors degree in engineering at his local University of Michigan, where he showed an interest in solar-powered cars and built his Lego printer.
He maintains an interest in environment-friendly transport, investing in electric car maker Tesla, while still driving a hybrid Toyota Prius.
Page joined forces with Brin, who is a year younger, to produce the first version of their search engine — then called ‘BackRub’ — in 1996. The two went on to found Google in 1998.
It was Page who gave his name to Google’s trademark ‘PageRank’ algorithm, which ranks Web pages according to how many other sites link to it.
Page was the first CEO, from September 1998 to July 2001, when they hired Schmidt. Page and Brin, still in their 20s, put themselves in charge of products and technology respectively.
Like Brin, Page pays himself only $1 a year in salary. But cash is not a problem for either, as each has voting power over about 29 percent of the company, which now has a market value of $202 billion. Last year, Page and Brin were joint 24th on Forbes magazine’s rich list.
Retaking the role of CEO should not cause too much friction with Page’s co-founder, said Salinero.
“My impression has always been that Larry had more of a talent for running the operations, handling the press, and so on,” she said. “Sergey (Brin) has already talked about focusing on new technologies — plus his commitment to philanthropy. I suspect he didn’t want the scrutiny that comes with being in charge again.”
If Page’s new gig as CEO doesn’t work out, he can always go back to college. His official bio on Google’s website says he is still on leave from the computer science PhD program at Stanford.
Additional reporting by Alexei Oreskovic, Alexandria Sage and Dan Levine; Editing by Edwin Chan, Gary Hill