Meg Whitman's Political Reinvention

The former eBay chief was named chief of HP. We chatted with her in 2010 (when she was campaigning for governor of California) and found out who "the real Meg Whitman" is.

By Amy Wallace
meg whitman image
Meg Whitman, poised to reinvent
Photograph: Photo By Robert Maxwell

Ground zero for Meg Whitman’s campaign for governor of California is a suite of rooms modestly tucked into a colorless cookie-cutter office park—all sprayed stucco walls and fluorescent lights. I’m ushered into a conference room so unadorned there is not even a campaign poster on the walls. Whitman sits at the head of a white meeting table, and as I sit down beside her, two handlers pull up chairs as well. The space offers no clues to Whitman’s personality, and she doesn’t reveal much herself.

In her black suit and black-and-white sweater, the former CEO of eBay, now 53, is still the picture of a put-together corporate titan. And her approach is all business. Seeming energized by an earlier discussion of the state budget with her campaign staff, she tosses numbers around with confidence. When I ask where she’ll find the votes to win the race (the primary is in June, the general in November), she breaks down the research in a tone so self-assured that I can almost see a thought bubble forming over her head: Statistics may scare some women, but not me.

Over the months that I reported this article, I often heard the candidate and her staff say that they want people to know “the real Meg Whitman.” Jillian Manus, the chair of Whitman’s women’s coalition (dubbed MEGaWomen), told me, “Everyone knows what she’s done. I want to let people know who she is. To feel her, get her, touch her.” But Whitman is hard to know, much less touch. She’s quiet, understated and more wonky than ebullient after a career spent largely in Silicon Valley tech circles—in all, not the type that seems born to storm the political stage. Unlike Sarah Palin, Whitman doesn’t wink or quip or let go with unscripted rants; unlike George Bush, she doesn’t give people funny nicknames; and unlike Bill Clinton, when she tries to show she feels your pain, she sounds a bit wooden. Forget your pain; she seems at times not even to feel her own.

But with her high-level Republican connections (she counts Mitt Romney and John McCain as friends) and her jaw-dropping personal fortune ($1.2 billion, by a 2009 Los Angeles Times estimate), Whitman is a candidate no one can ignore. Having left her job at eBay in 2008, she is now pursuing politics as a second act and at this moment is in mid-leap—committed to her new calling but, with no experience running for elected office, uncertain of her odds. Her political future boils down to this: Will she persuade voters—especially women—that the talents she parlayed into a billion bucks can guide California through the recession’s perfect storm?

If only every voter Whitman is courting could meet her mother. While the candidate seems all discipline and reserve, Margaret Whitman, 89, does not, and the stories she tells about the young Meg hint at what lies beneath the candidate’s cool. “When she was little, she was extremely determined. Whatever she decided to do, she was going to do,” says Margaret, recalling that swim meets in particular brought out the competitor in her younger daughter. “Meg was a pretty good swimmer. But at meets, I had to be there, because if she wasn’t at least first or second, she’d be screaming with rage. There was no second best for her. She has always loved to win.”

During the summers, while Whitman’s father stayed behind at his financial services job on Long Island, her mother took the three kids—Whitman and her older sister and brother—on cross-continental adventures. They traversed the western U.S. one year and Alaska the next; on that trip, they drove the desolate, partially unpaved Alcan Highway. Whitman was only six, but the image of her mother lashing four spare tires to the roof of the family camper, just in case, stays with her. Whitman recounts how in the 1940s, before having kids, her mom volunteered to be a war mechanic in New Guinea. “She’d never looked under the hood of a car or fixed anything with a wrench,” Whitman says. “But she knew that’s where the critical need was and where she could make the biggest contribution. The learning curve didn’t stall her. In fact, it fueled her.” To Meg Whitman, the parallel is clear: “I am my mother’s daughter.”

As brainy as she was competitive, Whitman graduated from high school in three years, earned a degree in economics from Princeton, then got an MBA from Harvard. She met her husband, Griffith Harsh, a neurosurgeon, when she was a college sophomore and he was a Harvard senior. When I ask him later whether Whitman has enough grit to be governor, Harsh laughs, remembering their first date. She invited him to her sister’s wedding and he accepted, but then showed up late, arriving as the band was packing to go. “I called [afterward] and properly apologized,” he recalls, but “she was not really happy.” Only later did he discover that she’d hedged her bets. “I think she had invited a couple of guys to the wedding, not just me,” he says. “She’s tough, let me tell you. Nothing intimidates her.”

The couple had two sons as Whitman moved up professionally, holding spots at the management consulting firm Bain & Company (where Mitt Romney was her boss), Disney and Hasbro (where she was in charge of Mr. Potato Head), among others. Then the young founder of a three-year-old business called eBay decided he needed, in Whitman’s words, adult supervision, and she got a call from a headhunter. Accepting the job meant a pay cut from close to $1 million to $100,000, but she took the plunge, moving her family cross-country. (Harsh practices at Stanford University Medical Center.)

As Whitman explains in her new book, The Power of Many, written with Joan O’C. Hamilton, she has always had two priorities: family and work. Nearly everything else falls by the wayside, including such activities as clothes shopping. “To this day, I walk into a department store and I am slightly baffled about where to begin,” she writes. “ . . . I once said something offhanded to a Fortune reporter that I know will follow me for the rest of my life. She asked what I thought people thought of me, and I responded: ‘She’s frumpy, but she delivers. . . . ’ She didn’t misquote me. I would love to look snazzy and stylish every day, but something’s got to give. I know that focusing has consequences.”

Even with clear priorities, Whitman didn’t always find it easy to balance career and family, and she still seems pained by the sacrifices she had to make. One story she tells on the stump took place 21 years ago, when her oldest son was three years old and another mother at his preschool called to organize a carpool. Whitman, who then worked fulltime at Bain, told the mother she would be happy to participate, assuring her that on days when the job interfered, her nanny would fill in. This elicited a response Whitman says she will never forget. “In an icy tone she said, ‘I did not quit my job at McKinsey [the management consulting firm] to have someone else’s nanny drive my child.’ ” That night, Whitman says, her husband bucked her up. “He said, ‘Meg, do not worry about it. You keep on doing what you’re doing.’ But I must tell you, it took me six months to recover from that moment.”

Whitman put her head down and kept working, drawing on her focus, her drive, her persistence in the face of criticism. Those are the qualities she’s now harnessing in hopes of winning out over men far more politically experienced than she: former Congressman Tom Campbell and California insurance commissioner Steve Poizner, her competitors for the Republican nomination, and Jerry Brown, the presumed Democratic candidate, who is now California’s attorney general and who has been previously elected governor not once but twice. (At presstime, Brown had not announced his candidacy.) Like her mother volunteering to serve in the jungle, Whitman is undaunted. By war’s end Margaret Whitman was a fully certified mechanic and, says her daughter, “To this day, she still talks about overhauling Jeep engines faster than the men.” Also like her mother, Whitman is confident she can figure it all out.

She certainly figured out eBay. At the height of her power there, Whitman was an Oprah-like figure, greeted with raucous applause and chants of “Meg! Meg! Meg!” at the company’s 2003 eBay Live, in Orlando, Florida, a community event for the site’s buyers and sellers; she happily autographed T-shirts and trading cards that day for the 10,000 eBay enthusiasts who’d flocked to see her. Wall Street was no less adoring: In 2000, the stock hit $127.50 a share (it now trades around $23). Fortune twice named her (in 2004 and 2005) the most powerful woman in American business, and Forbes put her on its 2007 list of Best Bosses for delivering “superior returns to shareholders while not gorging on outrageous pay packages.” (Her salary averaged $1.7 million a year from 2001 to 2007, not counting her lucrative stock options.) When she arrived at eBay in 1998, the company had 30 employees, revenues of $4.7 million and a reputation as a place to buy and sell Beanie Babies. During Whitman’s 10-year tenure, the company exploded, becoming a global marketplace with more than 15,000 employees and revenues of $7.7 billion.

How much credit goes to Whitman? Back then there was a joke around the company that the business model was so strong, “a monkey could drive this train,” and one board member reportedly commented that the CEO “found a parade and ran in front of it.” But Whitman can take credit for several of the company’s key successes. She was known as a hands-on, very involved manager who dressed like her employees (“I wore khakis and button-down shirts every day,” she says. “I mean, it was the greatest thing ever”), who once camped out in the office for two weeks when the site crashed. She also saw to it that eBay reflected certain values (she banned the sale of guns, alcohol and Nazi memorabilia, among other things). She expanded the company aggressively overseas, establishing a strong foothold in Germany, Malaysia, the Philippines, India, South Korea and the Netherlands. In 2002, she masterminded the purchase of PayPal for $1.5 billion.

But for all the hagiography that surrounds Whitman (and most other billionaire CEOs), she also had her failures—some of them expensive. She was too late trying to establish an eBay foothold in Japan, eventually pulling out of the country altogether. Her purchase of Skype in 2005 for an estimated $2.6 billion is now seen as a disaster; the company took a $1.4 billion write-down on the purchase. And eBay has been involved in a number of lawsuits concerning the sale of counterfeit goods on the site (some they’ve won; some they’ve paid fines). In fact, while Whitman’s first seven years are an acknowledged triumph, once the company started to cool, the remaining three years of her stewardship are generally agreed to have been less impressive. Of course to voters, specific successes and setbacks may matter less than Whitman’s professional résumé. She steered a massive company for a decade, and that’s what she’s campaigning on when she says, “There are tremendous efficiencies that can be had by running the government a little bit more like a business.”

After interviewing Whitman at her headquarters, I head back to San Francisco for her umpteenth campaign stop since she formed her exploratory committee in February 2009. At this event, on the top floor of the city’s second tallest building, she is receiving an award from the California Women’s Leadership Association. She has changed outfits since the afternoon and looks great in a gold-checked Nehru jacket, slacks and pearls. Through the year I have watched her warm to public speaking, particularly in smaller venues like this one, where she can see people’s faces. “When I first considered running,” she tells the crowd, “the question I had to ask myself was, is California actually governable?” I’ve heard her use the line before, and it works again here; 100 or so well-dressed men and women all stop chewing cheese cubes long enough to laugh with her. “I have concluded that California is governable,” she continues, her tone supremely self-confident. “But it will take a very different approach.”

She proceeds to once again outline the three pillars of her platform: creating new jobs, cutting spending and strengthening education. Whitman acknowledges that there’s nothing unique about these priorities, that fixing this stuff is Job One for any governor in the country, but she insists that the lack of novelty is a strength. “Eighty percent of the people can agree on this agenda,” she tells me. “It is not a divisive agenda. It is an uplifting agenda. Most people have some intuitive sense that the government is not run as efficiently as it should be. I mean, when you go to the DMV, do you feel uplifted? Probably not. When you go to file your state taxes, do you feel like this is an easy process? You’re probably feeling that California is not run as efficiently as it could be.”

Behind a velvet curtain just a few feet from where Whitman stands, campaign staffers are working hard to ensure she gets a chance to fix that. There, in a makeshift studio decorated only by a spray of delphinium, they are busily videotaping testimonials from several smart-looking women plucked from the crowd who say they will vote for Whitman. Within hours, that footage will be up on megwhitman.com, her official Web site, which was created by former eBay executives and is far more elaborate than the sites of her male rivals. Its distinctly feminine design is aimed directly at women, the voters Whitman says have had a major role in deciding every California election in the past 20 years. On the site, a woman named Lydia Beebe, the corporate secretary for Chevron Corp., explains why she joined Whitman’s MEGaWomen grassroots organization. “Meg has brought appeal beyond the Republican party,” Beebe says, predicting that Whitman’s pragmatism will win over voters “who might not otherwise be attracted to somebody with an R after their name.”

One of Whitman’s more controversial proposals is to suspend for a year the state’s compliance with Assembly Bill 32, which requires California to reduce greenhouse emissions by roughly 25 percent by 2020. She insists that she is an environmentalist but that now is not the time to embark on any programs that might drive business away. The extent to which the regulations might repel jobs has been the subject of past debate, but Whitman, with her instinct for data, says she’d keep relentless track. “We ought to have a digital billboard outside the governor’s office where we say how many jobs left for neighboring states this week, this month,” she says. “And until that number turns black, as opposed to bleeding jobs, then our job is not done. What I know from life is that when everyone’s focused on one number, somehow that number gets fixed.”

Her plan for eliminating 40,000 state positions has also drawn fire, even from the office of fellow-Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, which pointed out that many state jobs don’t fall under the governor’s control. (Some have said that to achieve those cuts Whitman would have to fire so many corrections officers that it would be a threat to public safety.) But Whitman stands firm on her overall message. “Being CEO of the state is not a popularity contest,” she once said. “In the real world, business leaders cut expenses until the company is healthy again.”

Whitman’s biggest political black eye so far has been her frequent failure to vote. She didn’t cast a ballot for president in 2000, for instance, or in the election that recalled Governor Gray Davis and replaced him with Schwarzenegger. “It was a mistake,” she says whenever she is asked about it. “I should have voted, and I didn’t.” Lately she has offered more of an excuse, telling Fortune: “I was head down, building eBay, with two teenage sons and a neurosurgeon husband and traveling half the time.”

If there’s one feeling that multitasking women can understand, it’s that one. Which is why, despite the best efforts of some of her rivals, her spotty voting record may prove to be a nonstarter. Also going for her are some big-name endorsements: from Mitt Romney, for whose presidential run she raised $12 million; John McCain (she served as his national co-chair after Romney dropped out of the race); former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani; and former two-term California governor Pete Wilson, who is the chair of her campaign.

And then there’s her money—all billion-plus dollars of it—which she has been spending freely: The Los Angeles Times reported that from January to June 2009, the Whitman campaign spent $111,706 just on chartering planes, almost as much as the $147,030 that her Republican rival Tom Campbell spent on his entire campaign. And this may be just the beginning. “[She has said] she’s willing to spend $150 million of her own money on this campaign. That’s the budget of some countries,” says Larry Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State University. “And to the extent she follows through with it, that will color the race a lot.”

Whitman is unapologetic. “[As of July 2009], the campaign has raised more than $6.7 million,” she says. “I’ve matched the enthusiasm of my donors by contributing $19 million since February. I’m prepared to invest whatever it takes to communicate my message to Californians and to have an opportunity to address the problems of the state.” Based on those numbers, she has done far more than “match” her donors’ contributions, but money alone may not be enough to secure victory. In New York in November 2009, Mike Bloomberg won a third term as mayor by a margin of less than five percentage points, despite running the most expensive self-financed campaign in U.S. history. (He spent over $100 million, more than 10 times his main rival’s outlay.) In California in 2006, venture capitalist Steve Westly poured $35 million of his own money into his campaign for governor, only to lose the Democratic primary.

So if money alone won’t make the difference, what will? The burden is heavy on Whitman to show that her experience at eBay qualifies her for public office. “For voters to buy her argument, they’re going to have to believe that her record in the private sector was exemplary,” says Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, at the University of Southern California. Or, as Gerston puts it, “She has a prominent set of business skills, but the question is, are they transferable to a government setting?

One major problem for Whitman in making her case is that in a certain sense, she never had to reinvent eBay: She grew it, but she didn’t turn it around. And turnaround is what California desperately needs. At presstime, the state had a $20 billion deficit, a 12.5 percent unemployment rate, and a K–12 school system ranking 48 out of 50 in reading. Politically speaking, California is just as ripe for reinvention as Whitman herself is. Will the self-contained but highly competitive personality that proved such an asset at eBay translate politically? Will those same traits make her an effective governor if she does get elected? If enough voters take away the message that she is her mother’s daughter—the pioneer in a man’s world, going where need is greatest—perhaps we’ll all have the chance to find out.  
Read: Meg Whitman Is Named Hewlett-Packard Chief

Related: 50 Women You Want On Your Side

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First Published Wed, 2010-01-20 14:12

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