President and CEO
Meg Whitman was minding her own business, overseeing global marketing for the Mr. Potato Head and Playskool brands at Hasbro, when she got the headhunter’s call: Would she want to run a tiny Internet auction company in Silicon Valley? Even though her first reaction was a definite “nope,” she flew to San Jose, Calif., anyway to meet eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. While there, she saw the makings of a great brand and a profitable business. In February 1998, Whitman signed on as eBay’s CEO. And today, she is responsible for the largest operating margin of all publicly traded dotcoms?an impressive 30 percent.
Whitman, 45, presides over eBay from a cubicle, yet she arrived with a decidedly corporate rŽsumŽ, including degrees from Princeton and Harvard and stints at Bain, Disney, FTD, Procter & Gamble and Stride Rite. As a result, she’s very bottom-line focused. “She manages costs very closely,” says Bob Quinn, who was eBay’s CIO from June 1999 to early 2000. While the rest of Silicon Valley burned through VC cash in a seemingly mindless grab for customers, Whitman always demanded a clear time line for return on every investment in growing eBay, says Quinn.
When eBay suffered outages during the summer of 1999, Whitman would call the IT staff throughout the night, Quinn recalls. If there was a crisis at 4 a.m., she’d show up in jeans and a T-shirt to assess the situation and to get accurate information to share with the outside world. That experience led her to invest heavily in creating redundancy, says Adam Cohen, author of The Perfect Store: Inside eBay (Little Brown & Co., 2002). “It’s bad when technology goes down in any company,” Cohen says. “She understood that the second technology goes down at eBay, the whole company isn’t there.”