Shares of Yahoo remained flat, closing at $32.16 on Wednesday.
In an open letter to Yahoo board members from Starboard Value LP, which owns 0.8 percent of the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based firm’s stock, chief executive officer Jeffrey Smith made the case that the board should “embrace significant change” or face a proxy contest that could impact the structure of its board, management and Mayer’s job.
The letter comes after Yahoo ceo Mayer and chairman Maynard Webb shifted course in December away from a sale of its core business and spin off of its lucrative stake in Chinese Internet company Alibaba, citing that it would accrue a massive tax bill for Yahoo.
Instead, Yahoo is pursuing a tax-free spinoff of its core business and stake in Yahoo Japan, which could take at least a year to complete. The strategy would split the company in two; one half would hold the Alibaba stake worth almost $40 billion, and the other would comprise everything else Yahoo holds, including its embattled Internet business that contains its digital magazine unit comprised of Yahoo Style, Beauty and Celebrity.
Starboard, which has urged a sale of the core business, pressed that there are “several buyers” interested who have been “ignored” by Yahoo.
A Yahoo spokeswoman said: “Yahoo is in the midst of a multiyear transformation. We attract more than a billion people every month and we’ve built a profitable, billion-dollar business in mobile, video, native and social that we expect will drive sustainable growth. We will share additional plans for a more focused Yahoo on or before our fourth-quarter earnings call [at the end of January]. Our board and management team engage in and maintain regular, open dialogue with all our shareholders, and consistently strive to deliver and to maximize shareholder value.”
Despite its plans, all this begs the question of whether there is a strong suitor for Yahoo’s core business, which has taken a hit under Mayer. The firm has struggled to grow the Internet business, which includes an e-mail service, selling search, display ads and the slate of lifestyle channels.
Yahoo poured money into the development of those channels, hiring big-name editors including global news anchor Katie Couric, former New York Times columnist David Pogue (to run Tech), former Elle creative director Joe Zee (at Style and Décor) and makeup entrepreneur Bobbi Brown (Beauty).
But traffic has sputtered across the lifestyle channels, according to data firm Comscore.
When it launched in September 2014, Style had 12.9 million unique visitors, and hit a high of 17.9 million in February 2015, thanks to New York Fashion Week coverage. Since then it has steadily lost viewers, dipping to 7.4 million in September and ending November with 8.4 million views. Yahoo Beauty’s rise and fall has been more circular with traffic starting at 2.1 million in June 2014, cresting to 9 million in August, and finally settling at just above 4 million in November 2015. Yahoo’s Shopping vertical, on the other hand, plummeted 72.1 percent from 13 million in January 2014 to 3.6 million last November. Even Yahoo Celebrity has suffered losses, plunging 67.9 percent in traffic from 42.6 million in January 2014 to 13.7 million last November.
Yahoo declined to comment on its flagging traffic, but activist investor Eric Jackson of SpringOwl Asset Management pointed to the Web company’s lack of a mobile strategy as a reason.
“Yahoo was set up to succeed in a PC world,” Jackson said. “The drop is a representation of how Yahoo hasn’t really delivered on mobile apps.”
He said Mayer’s “big failure” is that when she joined Yahoo as ceo in 2012 she was heralded as somebody who “understood mobile.” Mayer had even remarked on how few mobile engineers Yahoo had when she was hired, but Jackson said that even though she’s hired more engineers, there’s been a dearth of mobile product.
“It’s hard to point to what she’s created,” he said, explaining that what will likely happen in the next few months will be an upheaval of sorts at the company, potentially including negotiations with shareholders or a proxy contest.
“The current board doesn’t want to lose their jobs, and Mayer will do everything to keep her job,” Jackson noted. “Shareholders who I’ve talked to are not happy…some people are saying Yahoo is a melting ice cube and they have to sell now, others are saying they need to fire the board of directors.”
Either way, a proxy battle could unravel in the coming weeks with a vote for new board members taking place in June.
“There probably will be some kind of change, whether that’s new management or maybe a buyer walks in and makes an offer [to Yahoo], but a year from now, Yahoo is a different company,” Jackson contended.