SAN FRANCISCO - Larry Page has the vision, passion and intelligence that Google Inc. needs in its next leader.
Yet as he becomes CEO on Monday, the Google co-founder must prove that his aloofness, rebellious streak and affinity for pursuing wacky ideas won’t alienate investors and lead the company astray. He’s taking over amid emerging threats from rapidly growing rivals and more vigilant regulators alike.
Investors used to Google’s consistency in exceeding financial targets worry that new leadership will bring more emphasis on long-term projects that take years to pay off. And many people still aren’t sure he has enough management skills to steer the Internet’s most powerful company.
Page already has learned that smarts alone won’t make him a great leader. Although Page impressed Google’s early investors with his ingenuity, they still insisted that he step down in 2001 as Google’s first CEO. He turned over the job to Eric Schmidt, a veteran executive who began working in Silicon Valley in the early 1980s while Page was still in grammar school.
Page’s admirers say that at 38, he is more mature and less apt to be chronically late to meetings or tune out of conversations that don’t stimulate his intellect – habits that he fell into during his first stint as CEO.
“There are parts of being CEO that don’t fit Larry’s personality,” said Craig Silverstein, the first employee that Page and Google’s other founder, Sergey Brin, hired when they started the company in 1998. “You wear a lot of different hats when you’re CEO. Some of them are very interesting to Larry and some of them, presumably, are less interesting.”
True to his taciturn form, Page hasn’t said much publicly since Google made its stunning announcement in January that he will replace Schmidt as CEO. Google said Page wasn’t available for an interview.
Page, though, has left little doubt about his priority: to dissolve the bureaucracy and complacency that accompanied the company’s rapid transformation into a 21st-century empire. Google is expected to end the year with more than 30,000 employees and $35 billion in annual revenue.
STILL IN THE SHADOWS
In Page’s mind, the 13-year-old company needs to return to thinking and acting like a feisty startup. Rising Internet stars such as Facebook, Twitter and Groupon, all less than 8 years old, are developing products that could challenge Google and make its dominance of Internet search less lucrative.
Page has drawn comparisons to two high-tech geniuses who are even more accomplished: Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates and Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Jobs. Like those two pioneers in personal technology, Page invented and cultivated a product that changed the world.
But Page has yet to match them in this respect: as CEOs, Gates and Jobs brought out the best in the companies that they created, delighting stockholders as their investments soared.
Page doesn’t fit the CEO mold, even by the standards of Silicon Valley’s free-wheeling culture. He dropped out of graduate school at Stanford to start Google and doesn’t have a business degree.
Science and technology, though, seems to be in his DNA even though he grew up in Michigan, where automobiles rule.
Page has wanted to control his own destiny – and legacy – since reading a biography of the inventor Nikola Tesla before he was in high school. Tesla wasn’t rewarded or widely recognized for his breakthroughs in X-ray, wireless communications and electricity. Page didn’t want that to happen to him as an entrepreneur.
For that reason, Page embraced the chance to be Google’s CEO when the company started in a rented garage not far from the company’s current headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. It also helps explain why he and Brin created a separate class of stock with greater voting power so they and Schmidt could remain in charge after the company went public in 2004. Page’s stake in Google has made him one of the world’s wealthiest people with an estimated fortune of $20 billion.
WALL STREET MYSTERY
Although the contours of his personality and background are known quantities, Page remains an enigmatic figure on Wall Street.
To some, he remains best known for uncompromising idealism, reflected in his embrace of his company’s “Don’t Be Evil” motto and his pledge to never cater to investors’ desire for ever-rising quarterly earnings at the expense of long-term investments.
Page already raised concerns by pushing Google into renewable energy and robotic cars. Those who know him say he has discussed even more far-flung projects behind closed doors.
“Sometimes his ideas are just way out there and you’re kind of like, ‘Wow, that came out of left field,’” said Ethan Anderson, a former Google product manager who now runs Redbeacon, a startup that operates a search engine for finding neighborhood businesses.
Uncertainty about whether Page will be as interested as Schmidt in appeasing Wall Street has contributed to a 5 percent drop in Google’s stock price. The technology-driven Nasdaq index has added 3 percent since the CEO change was announced Jan. 20.
BGC Financial analyst Colin Gillis doesn’t believe it’s a coincidence that Google revealed it would hire more than 6,200 employees this year – a 25 percent boost, and the most in its history – less than a week after it announced Page’s comeback as CEO.
“Don’t be surprised if Google’s spending goes up, even if it means its earnings per share might go down,” Gillis said.