Baseball fan steps up at Yahoo

If his surprise ascension this week to one of the top jobs in the internet world left many observers feeling underwhelmed, Scott Thompson was not about to let it ruin his day.

“I’m a confident person,” he declared, after being named to the vacant chief executive position at Yahoo. Wall Street may have questioned his apparent lack of relevant experience, but the man himself barely missed a beat.

“I’m comfortable about acknowledging what I know, and what I don’t know,” he said with a level of equanimity that belied the intense pressure he will be under in one of the most exposed positions in the media and internet industries.

The job of turning round Yahoo has proved too much for a succession of chief executives, most recently Carol Bartz, who was sacked in September after a two-and-a-half-year stint.

Yet as with his predecessor, Yahoo’s board is again gambling on an executive who is largely unknown in the wider business world and who comes with a solid, if limited, reputation earned outside the media and advertising industries.

“He’s not exactly a household name,” complained one long-suffering Yahoo shareholder, who has been among those agitating for Yahoo to move faster with its deliberations over a structural overhaul, including a possible sale of its valuable Asian assets.

Yet, reviewing Mr Thompson’s record, and the early impression he left after facing down sceptical questioning from some analysts this week, even this investor was prepared to acknowledge that Yahoo’s latest new broom brings strong qualities.

Mr Thompson’s route to the top of one of the biggest digital media concerns has not been an obvious one.

After graduating in accounting and computer science from Stonehill College, a small Roman Catholic institution close to his home town of Raynham in Massachusetts, he worked as an IT consultant with Coopers & Lybrand. His experience with financial services clients eventually led to a series of positions in the finance industry, as chief information officer of Barclays Global Investors and at Visa, before he became chief technology officer at PayPal, the online payments arm of Ebay.

A genial, fast-talking executive with a strong Boston accent, Mr Thompson, 54, slips easily into the standard persona of the US male. With a self-deprecating laugh, he declares himself a passionate supporter of the Red Sox baseball team and swears allegiance to all his native region’s main sports franchises, even if he and his family have long been residents of the San Francisco bay area.

But behind the bonhomie is a barely disguised impatience. To the biggest question he faces – if a succession of other Yahoo bosses have failed to rekindle growth from its large online audience and strong brand, why should he do better? – he offers only his personal leadership style.

Pointing to his record at PayPal, where revenues doubled during his four years in the top job, he promises he will move fast.

“We got after stuff, we executed there,” he says of PayPal’s rapid expansion on his watch.

After the focus on cost-cutting and profit margins of the laconic Ms Bartz, the expansive, growth-focused Mr Thompson will certainly be a change of style. Whether the result will be any better is a different question.

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