As she prepares to depart from EBay after a decade at the helm, Chief Executive Meg Whitman appears to be investigating a new career -- in politics.
Whitman has talked with top Republicans about the possibility of a run for California governor in 2010, according to three operatives who have had discussions with her. Whitman is said to be asking detailed questions about the logistics of a run and the effect she could have as governor, according to the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to reveal the conversations.
Whitman did not make herself available for comment. A source close to her said she had been talking with Republicans around the state and had become "fascinated" by politics in her work as a fundraiser for GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts and a former colleague of Whitman at the consulting firm Bain & Co.
The source close to Whitman, however, downplayed the seriousness of the conversations, saying that Whitman was still new to politics and that California Republicans, not Whitman, were the ones driving the discussion.
"This thing has come to her," the source said. "She hasn't given it all that much thought. It's not, 'I'm going to run. Give me a game plan.' "
Last September, Whitman switched her party registration from "decline to state" to Republican, according to records in San Mateo County, where she lives. The source close to Whitman said she had made the change in part so she could vote for Romney in the Feb. 5 Republican primary, which is closed to independents this year.
"Whitman has the potential to be a very strong candidate," says former Republican consultant Dan Schnur. "She brings very strong private sector experience to the table, and her involvement in politics gives her a potential base of support as well."
Whitman could breathe life into a party that has little money and few stars beyond Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is often at odds with Republican doctrine.
A moderate, she is a billionaire who could fund her own campaign. She ranked No. 361 on Forbes' 2007 list of the richest Americans, with an estimated net worth of $1.4 billion.
Another anticipated GOP gubernatorial candidate, Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, is also a billionaire from Silicon Valley. The two do not know each other.
Whitman, like Poizner, could face a difficult Republican primary against a conservative candidate such as State Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks). "It will be very difficult for her to explain to primary voters why she and Steve Poizner are different in any respect other than gender," Schnur said.
Former Republican Party Chairman Duf Sundheim, who was among those who encouraged Schwarzenegger to leave Hollywood for politics, says he sees Whitman as a potential candidate.
Sundheim is leading an effort to find candidates for 2010 and is talking to people inside and outside politics, including nontraditional candidates who are wealthy enough to finance their own campaigns, according to people who have spoken with him. Three sources said Whitman is among the candidates with whom he has talked.
"I've heard from others that Meg may have an interest in running for office someday," Sundheim said in an interview Thursday.
"We have many excellent potential candidates and I think Meg could be one of those candidates, and I hope she seriously considers it."
Margaret C. "Meg" Whitman, a 51-year-old New York native, joined EBay as its president and chief executive in 1998, when the online auction company had 30 employees and annual revenues of $4 million, according to a biography posted on the company's website. The company now has 15,000 employees globally.
Whitman said Wednesday that she would retire from EBay on March 31.
Since launching her career at Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati in 1979, Whitman has spent her professional life in the corporate sector, as an executive at toy maker Hasbro, Florists Transworld Delivery, Stride Rite Corp. and the Walt Disney Co.
She did her undergraduate work at Princeton and later earned a master's degree at Harvard Business School.