Icahn makes populist appeal to eBay shareholders

Icahn makes populist appeal to eBay shareholders

Summary: The activist investor worth more than $20 billion references Sir John Dalberg and Hans Christian Andersen in his latest screed calling for shareholders to shake up eBay's board and demand a PayPal spin-off.


There's a fine line between passion and desperation. And if activist investor Carl Icahn's latest plea to eBay shareholders is any indication, there might not be any point in making a distinction.

On Wednesday, Icahn posted yet another diatribe on his Shareholders' Square Table website, ripping eBay's "not-so-world-class board" and lamenting CEO John Donahoe and his fellow directors' "unfettered power to squander the critical first-mover advantage that PayPal has just as, in my opinion, they squandered the value of Skype."

This escalating war of words – mostly one-sided in origination – between Icahn and eBay's management team has gone on for the better part of a month. Icahn has called out directors Marc Andreessen and Scott Cook for alleged conflicts of interest, slammed Donahoe for his poor judgment and lack of vision and offered up a pair of his own employees as viable board replacements. He's also enthusiastically recommended a compromise of sorts to sell off 20 percent of PayPal in an initial public offering.

eBay, for the most part, has taken the predictable corporate high road, acknowledging that it has given consideration to Icahn's concerns and proposals, but has dismissed them out of hand while also defending its board members and strategy as it pertains to PayPal. It also laughed off Icahn's conflict of interest concerns related to its $1.9 billion sale of Skype in 2009 as little more than revisionist history.

This latest rant, however, titled "A Watershed Moment for Stockholder Participation," differed in tone from the onslaught of "open letters" Icahn has directed at eBay shareholders in recent weeks, striking a curiously populist tone – particularly coming from a man with an estimated net worth north of $20 billion.

It also comes, not coincidentally, a day after eBay announced plans to hold its annual shareholder meeting on May 13, significantly later than the usual mid-April date and a possible sign that it's taking some extra time to prepare for the looming proxy battle and rally support for its repeated insistence that eBay and PayPal are better – for customers and shareholders – together.

But eBay's steady defiance has brought out the William Jennings Bryan in Icahn, who holds roughly 2.2 percent of all oustanding eBay shares. His latest missive calls on the institutional investors who could have sway at eBay's upcoming shareholder meeting to remember the famous Sir John Dalberg quote about power tending to corrupt and that "absolute power corrupts absolutely."

He also used Hans Christian Andersen's "The Emperor's New Clothes" as a metaphor for the "conflicts and self-interested maneuvers" that he believes are "endemic" to the current eBay board.

While acknowledging that the company doesn't "have a monopoly on good ideas," eBay officials again said that keeping PayPal as part of eBay is the "right plan for today," adding that Icahn's "new" idea – a carve-out IPO of PayPal – indicates that he now seems to agree that a full separation of PayPal is "not a good idea."


Topics: E-Commerce, CXO, Tech Industry


Larry Barrett is a freelance journalist and blogger who has covered the information technology and business sectors for more than 15 years.

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  • Populist schtick

    T. Boone Pickens pioneered the technique in the early 1980s. Icahn learned it from him. The claim is that hard working investors are being oppressed by evil elitist managers and their lazy employee minions, thus demonstrating that just about everyone is susceptible to demagoguery to some extent.
    John L. Ries
  • Dear Mr Icahn...

    Dear Mr Icahn,

    Thank you for taking the time to write and mail to us your most recent missive "Why eBay ought to spin off PayPal, part XIX." We had our secretary's secretary's assistant's golden retriever read it, and --by the way he wiggled his waggedy his tail-- it would appear he liked it very much. However, after careful consideration of the merits of this canine appraisal, the board has once again decided to drop your idea into the circular file.

    Now please, go $#^$@ off.

    Yours truly,
    Some Folks Who Are Trying To Run An Actual Business, Here.
  • If spinning off Paypal...

    will reduce the seller fees in order to compete for ebay transactions with other payment processors, I'm all for it as I don't hold any stock, but I cop a shitload in Paypal fees and the occasional chargeback.
    If I held eBay stock, I'd kick Icahn in the nuts.
  • Consumer or stockholder, that might determine one's perspective

    I am not a stockholder in eBay, though looking back at a time so long ago when I began to use eBay to sell and purchase items for myself and others, it would have been prudent to me to purchase at least some stock.

    As a consumer, I want more choices and lower fees. The fees can eat away your profits on anything and your volume will usually have to be so high as to make the fees more palatable. I use PayPal for eBay and other transactions and do not care much for those fees either, but it is nothing that more competition could not handle.

    If Icahn's haranguing will result in better fees and service for we customers, I am all for it. If it only affects stock holders, it is of no consequence to me.