Whitman's Ebay Gamble Led to Tech-Exec Greatness

Whitman is credited with maneuvering eBay safely past the infamous dot-com crash of 2000 to profitability.

Meg Whitman was a successful marketing executive for a toymaking giant in 1998 when she took a big risk on a new game -- a fledgling online auction firm called eBay.

The gamble paid off, with Whitman working her way into the select ranks of leaders of an international Internet company with billions of dollars in annual revenues.

Not all of her bets were winners, however, with her campaign last year to become governor of California failing despite her pouring a record breaking $144 million of her own money into the effort.

On Thursday, the 55-year-old Whitman stepped in to run Hewlett-Packard on the heels of the ouster of Lo Apotheker as chief executive officer at the world's largest computer maker.

"Whitman can take orders," said analyst Rob Enderle of Enderle Group in Silicon Valley.

"With a strong leader on top of her, I actually think this might be able to work," he continued. "It is the only way it will work, because her skill set is wrong."

HP's chief executive is likely to be subordinate to board chairman Ray Lane, who sets company strategy, according to the analyst.

Whitman will face the challenge of leading a global corporation that appears to have lost its way and the faith of investors.

Whitman is credited with maneuvering eBay safely past the infamous dot-com crash of 2000 to profitability while other Internet firms sank into ignominy.

"She is much of what eBay is right now because so much of the decision-making process has come from her," Enderle told AFP.

Whitman Initially Planned a Career in Medicine

Whitman was born in Long Island, N.Y., to a businessman father and a homemaker mom. Whitman was the youngest of three children.

She enrolled in Princeton University in 1974 with plans to pursue a medical career, but switched to economics after a summer spent selling advertising for a college publication.

Whitman earned a master's degree in business administration from Harvard in 1979.

Her first job after college was in product branding for Procter & Gamble in Ohio, where she met and married a neurosurgeon.

The couple in 1981 moved to San Francisco, where she worked for a consulting firm before landing a job in the consumer products division of Walt Disney Corp. in 1989.

Whitman is credited with helping Disney acquire Discover magazine and with launching the iconic entertainment company's first store in Japan.

Whitman and her family moved to Boston after her husband accepted a job as co-director of a hospital brain-tumor center there in 1992.

She worked at a shoe company and, four years later, became chief executive of Florists' Transworld Delivery (FTD).

Whitman helped transform FTD from a struggling cooperative into a profitable private firm, before leaving in 1997 to be a general manager at toymaker Hasbro.

A year later, a corporate headhunter wooed Whitman to the helm of eBay, a startup launched by computer programmer Pierre Omidyar in San Jose, Calif., in 1995.

Whitman initially dismissed the notion, explaining in a 2001 interview that "a no-name Internet company" didn't appeal to her.

A visit to the eBay offices changed her mind and she took the chief executive job in March 1998. The company went public six months later.

Whitman's eBay Legacy

Whitman overhauled the website's look, launched an advertising campaign and negotiated the acquisition of venerable San Francisco auction house Butterfield and Butterfield, moving eBay into fine art and collectables.

As part of an expansion into new markets, Whitman orchestrated the purchase of European online auction house Alando de AG.

Whitman is credited with expanding eBay's domain while maintaining a sense of community that keeps users loyal.

Whitman has managed controversies that include shill bidding to drive up prices of art and the online sales of Nazi memorabilia or endangered animal products.

Whitman was reportedly heeding users' advice in 2003 when she arranged for eBay to buy PayPal, an online financial-transactions service that eBay uses for completing sales.

Under Whitman, eBay bought Internet telephony pioneer Skype and launched microlending website Microplace.com to funnel money to entrepreneurs in developing countries.

Whitman even made an unprecedented stand against Google.

The company yanked its advertising from Google as payback for the Internet search behemoth planning to promote PayPal rival Google Checkout near an annual gathering of eBay users last year.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2011

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