Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Peerless Leader ; Perceptive, Adaptable, and Remarkably Low-Key, eBay Chief Executive Meg Whitman Rides E-Tail's Hottest Segment - the Global Garage Sale Called Peer-to-Peer

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Peerless Leader ; Perceptive, Adaptable, and Remarkably Low-Key, eBay Chief Executive Meg Whitman Rides E-Tail's Hottest Segment - the Global Garage Sale Called Peer-to-Peer

Article excerpt

As one of the world's richest people, Meg Whitman could travel by corporate jet, a preferred perk of many business executives. Most of the time, though, she chooses to take commercial flights. It's a way to meet her customers.

"If I'm in an airport wearing an eBay hat or eBay T-shirt, people will come up to me and ask me if I work for eBay. When I tell them 'yes,' they say: 'I want to tell you, my feedback rating is 936.' Before they tell me their name, before they tell me what they sell, it's their feedback rating. It is a really important part of eBay's chemistry," she says, explaining that the customer-community approval process - through which eBay users rate one another's reliability - is what makes her online-auction business tick. EBay, she says, is a company driven by self-worth.

America's most pragmatic chief executive is happily at play in the Elysian fields of electronic commerce. A child of privilege, she sits in her open cubicle in San Jose, Calif., surrounded by family photos, Beanie Babies, Mr. Potato Head figures, and dozens of other mementos collected along a more than 20-year course through corporate America. One item stands out: a yellow hard hat with "Whitman" stenciled across the front.

The hat lends an anomalous bricks-and-mortar feel to the world's most audacious Internet company, one whose nine-year trajectory has been far steeper than those of Microsoft, Dell, Amazon, or Wal- Mart. By charging a 35-cent listing fee and a small percentage for transactions, the company has grown sevenfold since she took the helm in 1998. It facilitated the exchange of nearly $24 billion in goods and services last year, nearly doubling its 2002 revenues to $2.17 billion in 2003. This year $3 billion is within reach. Its registered customers are expected to surpass 100 million worldwide. In a sign that her board credits Whitman, it more than doubled her salary this week, to $2.19 million.

The company's growth has been compared with New York City's rise from an 18th-century fur trading settlement to a commercial powerhouse connected to the western markets by the Erie Canal. By harnessing the Internet, eBay might be more precisely considered a commercial cyclotron, accelerating and expanding business even into tiny, obscure corners of the world.

More than 20 million items are listed on eBay at any given time. A car sells every minute. More than 175 million searches are conducted daily. Some 10 million bids every 24 hours result in about $900 worth of goods and services exchanged every second.

From her collection-filled cubicle, Ms. Whitman is at the epicenter of this cyclotron. She is also eBay's one true bit of brick and mortar. Widely viewed as hard-nosed, she is also called humble - a characteristic that contrasts with the arrogance of some contemporary CEOs. This customer-service specialist seems uniquely qualified to run a firm at which the customers really are the company.

"EBay's extraordinary rise and built-to-last staying power can be directly linked to Meg's quality of leadership, insight, galvanized experience, and skills," says Howard Schultz, chief executive officer of Starbucks, the coffee giant he's run since 1987. He recently ended five years of service on eBay's board of directors, a tenure Mr. Schultz calls "the highlight of my business career."

"She represents both the emotional and rational side of the brand," says venture capitalist Bob Kagle, who helped recruit Whitman for eBay. "She is an active and fair listener and tough- minded and competitive." Says Mary Meeker, the Goldman Sachs Internet analyst on whose board of directors Whitman sits: "Meg personifies emotional intelligence, emotional IQ. She has worked with significant people in her life. She has been in on a significant number of decisions and situations. She's processed a lot. It is the multitude of experiences that has shaped her and it cannot be underestimated."

Just a few years ago, before Whitman's face appeared on the cover of every business magazine, you might have recognized her even though she bore no signature look save the efficient page-boy; a round, open face hosting a generous smile; and mirthful eyes that radiated a sense that she welcomes entertainment. …

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