Investors have been after Google (GOOGL) CEO Larry Page for years to cut back on the pie-in-the-sky bets that many see as a costly distraction to the company’s highly profitable core search and Internet advertising businesses.
On Monday, Page and partner in crime/Google co-founder Sergey Brin came up with an unprecedented solution: create a new holding company structure to separate, at least in their financial results, Google’s core Internet businesses from the farther afield fare like DNA research, smart thermostats and self-driving cars. The move harkened back to Page and Brin’s controversial auction-based initial public offering back in 2004, an unusual structure that puzzled Wall Street.
The initial stock market reaction was positive, as Google shares jumped more than 7%.
Under the unorthodox plan unveiled by Page on Monday, a new holding company called Alphabet will be formed as the publicly-traded entity owning Google and all of its varied other efforts. Page will become CEO of Alphabet and Sundar Pichai, who oversaw most of Google’s core businesses, will become CEO of the newly segregated Google unit. Brin will become the president of Alphabet, and Eric Schmidt will become the executive chairman of Alphabet.
The Google unit, which will report distinct financial results, will include only search, ads, maps, apps, YouTube and Android and the related technical infrastructure, the company said in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Businesses such as Calico, smart hardware maker Nest, and Fiber, as well as its investing arms, such as Google Ventures and Google Capital, and incubator projects, such as Google X, will be “managed separately from the Google business,” the company said.
The solution differs from the typical strategies Wall Street bankers and activist investors favor, such as spinning off unrelated units or issuing tracking stocks. But it should give investors a clearer picture of how well Google’s core businesses are doing by reporting the expensive experiments separately. Under Delaware law, shareholders won’t get a chance to vote on the structural change, Google said.
And Page and Brin showed no interest in curbing their wide-ranging ambitions.
“We’ve long believed that over time companies tend to get comfortable doing the same thing, just making incremental changes,” Page wrote in a blog post announcing the change. “But in the technology industry, where revolutionary ideas drive the next big growth areas, you need to be a bit uncomfortable to stay relevant.”
The tech giant has come under pressure as its founders have used the enormous success of its search engine to fuel riskier bets on autonomous cars, smart household devices, internet-delivering balloons and cutting edge medical research. The major restructuring will ostensibly give investors greater insight into how the money is being spent.
Colin Gillis, technology analyst at BGC Partners, said the move would allow investors to assess Google’s core business more clearly while allowing Google to highlight its other assets. “It’ll give people a truer picture of the nature and specifics of Google’s core operation,” he said.
He also praised Google’s appointment of Pichai, a rising star in Silicon Valley. “My sense is that here’s someone in high demand and in one fell swoop Google have kept him as a key manager,” he said.
All shares of Google will automatically convert into corresponding shares of Alphabet, which will continue to trade under the stock ticker symbols GOOG and GOOGL. Shares in Google soared 5% in after hours trading. The new structure is said to be similar to Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, which wholly owns a number of diverse holdings and has stakes in several others.
Page will become Alphabet’s CEO. Brin will be its president, and Eric Schmidt will be the executive chairman of Alphabet. Ruth Porat will be its CFO, and David C. Drummond will be the chief legal officer and secretary. The company’s chief business officer, Omid Kordistani, will step down and become “an advisor to Alphabet and Google” according to the company’s SEC filing.
Page, Brin, Schmidt and Drummond will leave Google, whereas Porat will keep her CFO role there and Pichai will take over as CEO.
Some analysts were sceptical about the level of clarity the move would actually add to Google’s financial statements.
“On balance the news is positive,” wrote Pivotal Research analyst Brian Wieser, “as this provides for incremental transparency into Google’s business and suggests the company is looking for ways to balance founder and employee interests with those of investors.”
Wieser added a note of caution, though, saying that it wasn’t clear how much of its quarterly financial info Google was anxious to share.
“It may be overly optimistic at this point to hope for discrete business unit break-outs,” he wrote, noting that major holes in investor knowledge included Google Display Networks, which Wieser estimated at $5bn by itself.
It remains to be seen whether Google will simply continue to tell shareholders to be content with their profits when it comes to some major business segments.