Bartz Downplays Any Deals As Yahoo Beats Expectations

by , Jan 28, 2009, 7:00 AM
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BartzSaying that "everything is on the table," new Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz nevertheless made clear in her first earnings conference call that she is not poised to sell the company or any of its parts. The company reported results that beat Wall Street's estimates.

Bartz, who succeeded Jerry Yang as chief executive two weeks ago, hailed the "wonderful energy" she has experienced at Yahoo and pledged to tackle key issues facing the embattled Web portal, including sharpening the company's strategic focus and streamlining its decision-making process.

Yahoo's net income in the fourth quarter rose 30% to 17 cents a share compared to the 13 cents that analysts expected. Without more than $600 million in one-time charges including restructuring costs tied to layoffs, the company would have posted a loss of $303 million, or 22 cents a share.

Revenue--after commissions paid to online partners--fell 2% from a year ago to $1.38 billion in the quarter, but was slightly higher than the $1.37 billion expected by analysts. Gross revenue increased 1% to 1.81 billion.

Faced with a recession eating into brand advertising budgets, Yahoo's core display ad business continued to contract during the quarter, falling 2% to $506 million from the year-earlier period. While the non-guaranteed--or remnant--advertising continued rapid growth, the gains were not enough to offset the decline in premium ad dollars, according to Yahoo CFO Blake Jorgensen.

Things looked better on the search advertising side, where revenue increased 11% to $436 million during the quarter. Search has overall proven more recession-resistant than display advertising as marketers shift spending to direct response ad options online. Search rival Google last week exceeded analyst expectations, reporting an 18% increase in fourth-quarter revenue to $5.7 billion.

Jorgensen said Yahoo was "pleased" that its share of search queries had stabilized during the last four months, according to comScore figures. Yahoo claimed 20.5% of searches in December compared to Google's dominant 63.5%.

For her part, Bartz assiduously avoided commenting on two of the major strategic decisions she faces as Yahoo's new boss: Whether to reopen talks with Microsoft over the sale of all or part of its search business, and whether to pursue a deal with Time Warner to acquire AOL. Analysts have pushed for Yahoo to forge ahead with the deals to help boost both the company's display and search ad businesses.

While expressing a willingness to look at any option that increased shareholder value, she also reiterated that Yahoo already possessed many valuable assets.

"I would just make a plea that this is a fantastic Internet property and really doesn't deserve everybody trying to pick it and pull it apart," she said during a question-and-answer session with analysts. "This is not a company that needs to be pulled apart and left for the chickens."

She stated flatly that she did not come to Yahoo to sell the company or its search business.

Instead, Bartz cited the strength of Yahoo properties including its home page and news, sports and finance sections. And she noted that the company will continue to launch multiple "new innovations in search" including incorporating user votes into search results.

But she also acknowledged that the company had problems that needed to be addressed. "What I'm most concerned about is that this organization is very complex and therefore it's hard for people to get speedy answers and make quick decisions," she said. "The good thing is, that's fairly easy to fix."

Under Yang's 18-month tenure, Yahoo underwent a series of management reorganizations that contributed to turmoil within the company and helped spur an exodus of scores of senior executives. Establishing clear lines of authority and communication within Yahoo would be one of her priorities, Bartz said. "The good news is, I happen to be pretty good at that stuff," she said, highlighting the can-do attitude and ready humor she displayed throughout the conference call.

"I thought I'd buy The New York Times tomorrow," she quipped at one point in response to a question about what initial changes she planned to make, alluding to reports by the paper regarding what is on her agenda. In fact, Bartz said it would take some time before she was fully versed in Yahoo's range of products and services in order to make major decisions about the company's direction.

"As far as getting more out of the wonderful assets this company has, it is really bringing quality to our strategy, increasing audience and their time online and making the site user-friendly," she said. "So product focus is important, but it's too early to say more than that."

When it comes to cost-cutting, Bartz has already signaled she's in charge by signing off on a freeze on employee salary raises last week. That followed the layoff of 1,600 workers in December, reducing the company's workforce to 13,600 by year end.

Jorgensen didn't rule out further cost-cutting moves in 2009, though the CFO did not anticipate reductions along the lines of those made during the fourth quarter. "You should assume that especially with uncertainty around revenue we will keep a razor focus on costs," he said.

Yahoo did not provide full-year guidance for 2009, but reduced its first-quarter outlook to $1.52 to $1.72 in gross revenue. "While we believe online ad spending will hold up better than media in 2009, advertisers are shortening lead times, giving us less visibility in to the demand pipeline we had a year ago," said Jorgensen.

Yahoo shares were up about 5% to $11.93 in after-hours trading, after closing at $11.34 Tuesday, up 1.52%. The stock is down about 60% from its 52-week high of $30. 25.

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