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Chief Yahoo Yang an atypical executive

Soft-spoken, cerebral but competitive, the CEO has struggled to reposition the Internet giant he co-founded.

February 02, 2008|Alex Pham and Jessica Guynn | Times Staff Writers

Yahoo Inc. co-founder Jerry Yang chose the name of his company in part because it referred to someone who is rude, unsophisticated and uncouth -- not the starchy executive jockeying for splashy deals.

The 39-year-old billionaire has relished the title of Chief Yahoo that he picked up after he and friend David Filo started the Internet search company in 1995 as graduate students at Stanford University.

The loyalty he and his employees have since built with one another has helped him rebuff numerous merger overtures, including ones from Microsoft Corp. But on Friday, the Redmond, Wash., software giant offered a huge payday to Yahoo shareholders with a bid valued at $44.6 billion, or 62% above the stock's value at Thursday's close of trading.

It's an offer that puts Yang in the spotlight, a place he doesn't particularly like. He prefers to leave the chief executive role to others as he rolls up his sleeves and dives into ways to keep Yahoo on technology's leading edge.

Until last year when Yang took over the helm as Yahoo's CEO, he had just one employee reporting to him: his secretary. Now, he has 14,000. He has been fiercely loyal to his troops, a guy who struggled unsuccessfully to hold back tears as he announced Yahoo's first layoffs, in 2000.

At Stanford in 1994, Yang and Filo built a site called "Jerry's Guide to the World Wide Web." The next year, they created a company around the website and called it Yahoo, an acronym for "yet another hierarchical officious oracle."

Later, it would also stand for "you always have other options," said Ellen Siminoff, who worked at Yahoo for six years in the 1990s. The acronym then embodied the spirit that drove Yang and others at the company, she said.

"People worked hard and ran fast because they realized they always had to stay ahead of the competition," she said. "In those days, you couldn't get your clothes on fast enough to get to work. And you couldn't find a spot in the employee parking lot on Saturdays."

As with many entrepreneurs, Yang was more comfortable in the realm of big ideas and broad strategy than the day-to-day tasks of running a company. So Yang and Filo hired Tim Koogle as the first CEO.

"People always asked me why I took myself out of the day-to-day operating responsibility," Yang said in an interview with Fortune magazine in 2000. "But that's never what I wanted to do, and besides, I knew so little about business that I didn't want to slow things down when the company began to scale up."

That made Yang a curious choice when the company's board tapped him to take over the top job last June from Terry Semel, analysts and former Yahoo employees said.

Unlike Semel, who was the company's charismatic face for five years, Yang is soft-spoken and cerebral. While Semel took heat for his $70-million annual compensation package, Yang opted for an annual salary of $1, joining Silicon Valley chiefs Steve Jobs at Apple Inc. and Eric Schmidt at Google Inc., according to

"It's a way of leading by example," said Bill Coleman, chief compensation officer at

Such gestures make Yang an iconic figure at Yahoo. Even so, he likes to walk around the Sunnyvale, Calif., offices in his khakis and cashmere sweaters, chatting with people.

Behind the friendly face, however, is a fierce intellect.

"He's stuck with his company every step of the way. And now that company is worth $44 billion. That's not an accident. Jerry has raw talent," said Vince Broady, who oversaw Yahoo's entertainment division until last year.

Yang also relishes a good rivalry.

"As quiet, humble and modest as he is, the guy wants to win," said Jim Brock, a former senior vice president of communications and consumer services.

In recent years, however, Yang has been watching his company lose ground to Google. Yahoo also failed to capitalize on the social networking phenomenon that catapulted websites such as MySpace and Facebook to popularity among a young, Web-savvy generation.

As Yahoo's fortunes slid, Yang took another hit, one that's more personal.

The Taiwanese-born Yang was visibly humbled in Congress when lawmakers in November called Yahoo executives moral "pygmies" for their decision in 2004 to turn over to Chinese police the names of journalists who had used Yahoo services to share material advocating democratic reform. The information led to the imprisonment of two Chinese journalists.

A week later, Yahoo announced it had reached an out-of-court settlement with the families of the two journalists involving a personal pledge from Yang to help free their sons.

Yang's efforts in turning around Yahoo also have not garnered praise.

"He's certainly a capable guy in terms of doing a start-up, but he hasn't demonstrated a capability to be the CEO of a company of the size and scope of Yahoo," said Rob Enderle, principal of the Enderle Group technology consulting firm in San Jose.

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