Former President & CEO, eBay Inc.
“Today, eBay does more than double the trading volume of the New York Stock Exchange. And eBay does it 24/7.”
Meg Whitman established a reputation as an innovative, can-do leader at firms that are American household names—Disney, Stride Rite, Procter & Gamble— and then applied her multifaceted talents to a fledgling start-up auction site. During her ten years at the helm, eBay grew from a small operation where collectors sold Beanie Babies to an internationally recognized brand that has redefined commerce. Since stepping down from eBay last spring, Whitman’s focus now lies in the public and social sectors.
When Meg Whitman joined eBay in 1998, the two-year-old private company had thirty employees and $4.7 million in revenue. “It was a raw start-up—lawn chairs in the middle of a big room,” recalls Whitman from eBay’s headquarters, now called the Whitman Campus, in San Jose, California. Initially uninterested in the CEO position, upon meeting eBay founder Pierre Omidyar she realized this was no ordinary opportunity. “The company had a 70 percent compound monthly growth rate. Clearly eBay was doing something right.”
At the time, Whitman was a general manager of the Preschool Division of the Rhode Island–based toy company Hasbro, overseeing brands like Mr. Potato Head and Teletubbies. eBay’s ability to link consumers with the goods they were seeking—“to make inefficient markets efficient”—intrigued Whitman enough to move her family across the country for what the less adventurous might have considered a risky endeavor.
Whitman’s 25 years prior to joining eBay seem tailored to preparing her to take the helm of a world-changing business. After earning her MBA, she picked up customer expertise at P&G and later at Disney, where she ran the Consumer Products Division. As a VP at Bain & Company, she gained industry experience that she later applied as head of the Children’s Group at Stride Rite and as CEO of FTD , the floral products company.
After two years commuting from Boston to FTD in Detroit, Whitman accepted a position closer to home at Hasbro. “I liked the toy industry,” recalls the mother of two boys. “My sons got to be testers, and I enjoyed being a general manager of a great brand.”
Whitman’s leadership abilities were hard to ignore, and she agreed to visit eBay merely to appease a headhunter with whom she had a good relationship.
At the end of her day of interviews, she signed on as CEO. “Over the years I had learned that great consumer brands have two attributes: differentiated features and emotional connection. eBay users were connecting over a shared interest. The discussion boards were alive with people interested in teapots, Civil War memorabilia, and stamps.”
Despite seeing the potential, even Whitman admits eBay grew beyond her wildest dreams. Today eBay, which she took public in 1998, has over 16,000 employees, with revenues of $7.7 billion in 2007. She is particularly proud that 1.3 million people make some part of their living selling things through eBay. “Our concept has been to make a small number of rules and get the heck out of the way so that people can be successful in doing what they love. It is as relevant in Korea as it is in Germany or Argentina,” says Whitman, noting that eBay is now in 39 markets around the world.
Whitman built the brand by listening and responding to customers and through smart acquisitions, expanding into areas that work well with the eBay model: purchasing the online payment service PayPal, launching a classifieds business, and acquiring Skype, a leading online communications firm.
“We’ve had a chance to make business history and at the same time have an incredible social impact,” says Whitman, who was named the most powerful woman in business by Fortune in 2005. Last March she handed the reigns to former Bain colleague John Donahoe. Still involved as an eBay board member, Whitman is now focused on philanthropic and political endeavors.
While not ready to predict her future, since May she has served as national co-chair of John McCain’s presidential campaign. “Campaigns are a lot like start-ups,” she says with her characteristic enthusiasm. “It’s a chance to apply my previous experience to a new realm and help shape our country’s future.”