SAN FRANCISCO, Jan 4 (Reuters) - Yahoo named PayPal President Scott Thompson as its chief executive on Wednesday, hoping the well-regarded Internet technology and e-commerce expert will replicate his success at eBay Inc and turn around the struggling company.
Thompson, credited with driving growth at eBay’s online payments division PayPal, joins Yahoo during a period of turmoil, as the company plows ahead with a strategic review in which discussions have included the possibility of being sold, taken private or broken up.
Shares of Yahoo were down about 2 percent in mid-morning trading, as Wall Street assessed how Thompson’s hiring would affect the hopes of some investors that Yahoo would be sold or spin off its Asian assets, as well as how Thompson’s background fits in with Yahoo’s core online media business.
“It’s a positive outcome, but not as positive as a sale of the company,” said Lawrence Haverty, a fund manager with GAMCO investors, which owns Yahoo shares.
“The risk element is that his background was in payments. And this is not a payment company; it’s a marketing, technology company,” he said.
Thompson, a former Visa payments software platform designer, joins the company four months after the firing of previous CEO Carol Bartz as the one-time Web powerhouse Yahoo struggles to compete with newer heavyweights Google Inc and Facebook.
“I’m from Boston, we’re the underdogs since the beginning of time. Hopefully that spirit has held through. I like doing complicated, very difficult, very challenging things,” Thompson said in an interview.
Thompson, who takes over on January 9, will also join Yahoo’s board. He ran eBay’s PayPal since early 2008, and was previously its chief technology officer. Under his leadership, Yahoo said PayPal increased its user base from 50 million to more than 104 million active users. PayPal processed $29 billion in payments in the third quarter of 2011.
EBay’s shares fell 3.5 percent as analysts said the online retailer would miss the respected Internet executive.
EBay Chief Executive John Donahoe told staff in an internal memo that Thompson’s move was a “shock.”
“Scott informed me Tuesday afternoon, saying that despite his passion for PayPal, this was an opportunity he felt he had to take,” Donahoe said.
At PayPal, Thompson was known as a leader who was not afraid to make bold strategic bets. He came up with the idea of taking PayPal beyond its online stronghold and into the physical world by allowing PayPal payments in retail stores — an opportunity analysts believe could prove much bigger than its existing business.
That kind of strategic risk-talking could be particularly useful at Yahoo. The Sunnyvale, California-based company, whose services include mail, search, news and photo-sharing, was a Web pioneer that grew rapidly in the 1990s. But in recent years, Yahoo has struggled to maintain its relevance and advertising revenue in the face of competition from rivals Google and Facebook.
“They really need that push to the next level,” said Ryan Jacob, chairman and chief investment officer of Jacob Funds, which includes the Jacob Internet Fund and counts Yahoo as one of its largest positions.
“Ideally what they would do is rather than just follow where today’s Internet leaders are moving, try to really be on that front edge,” he said, citing Yahoo’s need be better positioned in mobile, social networking and other fast-growing technology trends.
During a conference call on Wednesday, Thompson cited mobile as a key area that he expected to focus on at Yahoo, and he said he viewed the company’s treasure trove data about its users as one of Yahoo’s key assets. But he said it was too early to comment on his overall vision for the company.
Yahoo Chairman Roy Bostock told analysts on the joint conference call with Thompson that Yahoo has no intention of being taken private.
Bostock also said Thompson would not be distracted by decisions related to the Asian assets.
Yahoo recently has been discussing slashing its stakes in China’s Alibaba Group and its Japanese affiliate as part of a share deal worth about $17 billion, according to sources familiar with the situation.
Alibaba has also hired a Washington lobbying firm in a sign that the Chinese e-commerce company would be willing to make a bid for all of Yahoo in the event that talks to unwind their Asian partnership fail.
Several Yahoo investors said they believed the plans to spin off the Asian assets would remain on track with Thompson at the helm.
“If they can successfully complete the Asian asset transactions, in a way that is beneficial to Yahoo shareholders, I think it will buy them some time and they’ll have a chance to build for growth,” said Jacob, of the Jacob Funds.
“The sale of the Asian assets is what happens first and what happens afterwards is just a question of how they deploy the cash they get from the sale,” said Jordan Rohan, an analyst at Stifel Nicolaus.
In 2008, Yahoo rejected an unsolicited takeover bid from Microsoft worth about $44 billion. Its share price was subsequently pummeled during the global financial crisis and its current market value is about $20 billion.
Co-founder Jerry Yang stepped down in late 2008 after being severely criticized by investors for his handling of the bid. The company cut thousands of jobs and later agreed to an advertising and search partnership with Microsoft.
Thompson said in an interview that Yahoo was in a strong position with its large user base of more than 700 million people.
“The traffic itself that these sites generate is a very big number, the collection of assets that sit below this core business I think are not well understood and clearly have tremendous opportunity to be leveraged as we look forward to the future.”
(Corrects time since Bartz was fired as CEO to four months ago)
Additional reporting by Alistair Barr; Editing by Maureen Bavdek, Gunna Dickson and Bernard Orr