Since the day Meg Whitman announced she was stepping down as eBay's Chief Executive Officer, much has been written and spoken about the legacy she's leaving behind. It's impossible to tell the story of anyone's life over the course of 10 years without touching on both great success and sincere disappointment. Factor in the meteoric ride Whitman has taken on the rocket that is eBay, and we have a story whose full impact could take decades to sort out, let alone just a few months. Surely, the results of many of Whitman's efforts on behalf of eBay have yet to unfold in all their nuances.
But, whether you are speaking to Whitman's critics or her championsand she has quite a few of eachit's difficult to find anyone who doesn't personally think well of her and respect what she's done at eBay. When Whitman arrived 10 years ago, eBay was an infant, employing 30 people, and with revenues of only $4 million. As she steps down, the company is a cultural giant with more than 15,000 employees and nearly $7.7 billion in revenue. Whitman herself has said that "even a monkey could drive the locomotive that was eBay," but not any of the many monkeys we've had the chance to observe!
"My first thought is the effort of growing an egg into a chicken," notes Joe Cortese, founder of the Professional eBay Sellers Alliance. "One can't get away from the incredible accomplishments she's brought to the market. Even Ford or the railroad giants can't compare." Cortese is, of course, referring to the fact that, under Whitman's leadership, eBay has not only become a hugely successful and profitable business but a cultural and economic phenomenon as welland all in the space of 10 years.
Perhaps even Meg Whitman couldn't foresee that by the time she stepped away eBay would be operating in 39 global markets with somewhere near 276 million registered users worldwide. Of those many millions of users, more than 1.3 million sellers around the world use eBay as their primary or secondary source of income. So, it isn't just her own business Whitman has watched grow. "Meg's legacy includes incubating more than a million small businesses, improving the quality of life for so many families, including mine," notes PowerSeller David Yaskulka, who's also an e-commerce consultant.
Whether Meg Whitman will join Henry Ford as an icon of American commerce remains to be determined by future reviewers
Praise for Whitman's work at eBay has come in equal measure from the world of e-commerce and the larger business community beyond the Internet. Fortune has consistently ranked her among the top three most powerful women in business. BusinessWeek has included her on its list of the 25 most powerful business managers every year since 2000, and she shares her spot on Time magazine's consecutive ranking of the world's most influential people with only four other women. One more boast: She is one of only 10 self-made female billionaires in the world, according to Forbes.
Perhaps success was always in the cards for Whitman. She graduated with a degree in economics from Princeton and went on for her M.B.A at Harvard. That's a pretty good start to any business career. So, did Whitman make eBay legendary or did eBay create the legend of Meg? Whitman herself told Forbes in May 2007 that "I'm a better leader
I have learned how to manage a company that reinvents itself every couple of years." And that reinvention of eBay is where some of her critics begin to emerge.
Whitman hasn't spent the last 10 years simply building a dynamic online commercial marketplace. She's also set out to create a group of holdings that would solidify eBay's powerbase across the world of e-commerce. When she led eBay's purchase of PayPal in 2002 for $1.5 billion, she ensured that eBay would have control of payment services, not just for its own site, but across the Internet at large. The move has proven to be brilliant, turning most eBay transactions into automatic double-earners for the company, and spreading eBay's profit potential into corners of the Internet where PayPal has nothing to do with its parent company except bringing in the money.
eBay's acquisition of Skype in 2005 for upward of $2.6 billion was a move that Whitman's critics have hit upon harshly. So far, eBay hasn't found a way to turn worldwide free telephone communications into a profit base. And then, of course, there's the stumbling of eBay's stock price and the slowing of the company's growth. Throw in added competition from other Internet giants like Amazon and Google, who were no real e-commerce threat to eBay a decade ago, and you have plenty of opportunity for critics to shout that Whitman has missed the boat.
"I want to be impressed with Meg," says PowerSeller Jody Rogers. "She's personable, intelligent and a powerful woman in a commanding role of a huge company. The girl in me wants to scream 'Girl Power!' but I can't, because I feel that eBay could have and should have been better."
Rogers paints a picture of a community gone wrong. "There are so many things that users knew and understood far quicker than eBay. Every time there was a problem, a quick patch was sewn on, but there was very little effort to prevent issues before they became problems or root out the cause of the problem. Reactionary positioning is not the best course for a company."
A legacy is built in retrospect. Those of us who are living through a period in history aren't in a position to clearly see the outcome of human efforts. Whether Meg Whitman will join Henry Ford as an icon of American commerce remains to be determined by future reviewers.
"She has done a great job," notes PowerSeller Stephanie Inge. "But she's leaving at a time eBay needs her most." Inge's conflicting thoughts mirror those of many other observers, but we can all share her final comments to Whitman. "Thanks for the memories and dedication. I wish her a lifetime of peace, happiness and good health."