Never say never.
Tim Koogle, chairman and chief executive officer of Yahoo Inc., declined to rule out the possibility that the thriving Internet portal would follow in the wake of America Online Inc. and buy an old-line media company.
"Flexibility is what we're about," Koogle said. "We will continue to do acquisitions, for sure. We've done a number of those, both in size and type, including two that were large, or were thought of as large until yesterday"--the community site GeoCities as well as Broadcast.com.
As soon as AOL's acquisition of Time Warner Inc. was announced at dawn on Monday, the rumors started about Yahoo. Its most frequently cited partner: Walt Disney Co.
Once again, it would be the matchup of an old-fashioned media company with lots of content but no particular Web strategy and a new media outlet that reaches tens of millions of homes and offices around the world every day. Yahoo press representatives were flooded with dozens of calls from reporters.
Still, Koogle noted that an acquisition on the Disney or Time Warner scale wasn't exactly Yahoo's style.
"In building a global branded network, we've always had an approach that has served us well of being open and comprehensive," he said. "That benefit, if you've executed well, becomes self-reinforcing. If you can acquire a large audience, you're in a very attractive place for partners in commerce and content. And that in turn makes your network more attractive to an audience."
Yahoo has always been an Internet darling, but recently it has looked downright ravishing. What was a mere search engine, developed by two Stanford students to list cool sites on this new thing called the World Wide Web, is now a multifaceted shopping, news, chat, personal finance, games and community destination. A third of its users are outside the United States.
Koogle's comments came after Yahoo announced its fourth-quarter results, which featured a 120 percent increase in revenue over the same quarter a year ago and a 347 percent jump in net income.
The number of users who visited the site at least one time during the quarter doubled to 120 million, while the average number of page views a day, a key measure of traffic for a portal, rose from 167 million in 1998 to 465 million in '99. Yahoo also announced a 2-for-1 stock split.
It was, in short, the usual terrific stuff investors expect from a leading Internet brand--but maybe not quite terrific enough. Yahoo fell nearly 9 percent during the regular session today, dropping $38.68 3/4 to $397.37 1/2. The earnings news, released after the market closed, drove it down as low as $368 in heavy trading.
The drop was routine, said CS First Boston analyst Lise Buyer, noting that Yahoo stock "does this almost every quarter."
Beyond that, there were any number of reasons for such a large pullback. Yahoo has had an extraordinary rise, for one thing. Its recent high of $500 was five times its low in June. For another, some of the giddiness of Monday's market--when the price of media companies such as CBS Corp., News Corp. and Disney rose as speculation began that they, too, might soon be snapped up--wore off.
On a down day for the market as a whole, Disney crept up 37 1/2 cents, to $36.25; CBS inched up 6 1/4 cents, to $62.43 3/4; and News Corp. fell $1.25 to $43.81 1/4.
Yahoo also has the problem of an excellent track record, which creates the expectations of even better things to come. Its fourth-quarter earnings of $57.5 million, or 19 cents a share, compared with $12.9 million, or 4 cents a share in the same quarter in 1998, was better than the 15 cents analysts had been predicting.
However, when it came to the increasingly influential unofficial estimates, or whisper numbers, Yahoo only met expectations. Yahoo was also hurt by its own admission that its growth rate is so splendid as to be nonsustainable.
Finally, Yahoo's stock price may have been influenced by the fact that, if AOL and Time Warner can successfully merge their operations, the new firm will be a formidable competitor. In the news release announcing the earnings results, Koogle noted that AOL, along with Microsoft Corp. and of course Yahoo itself, was one of "the top three global branded networks."
But there's also the chance that the new AOL Time Warner could focus a little too heavily on its proprietary materials, Koogle said.
"There is a possibility they would become a little more narrow to serve the brands Time Warner owns," he said. "I don't know to what extent media companies that compete with Time Warner would be interested in an extensive partnering" with the new company.
Which, of course, would leave the field open wide for Yahoo.
As to whether there would be more mergers of this type, Koogle said frankly he didn't know. But he said Monday's deal didn't come as a complete surprise.
"AOL derives a significant proportion of revenue from bundled access in a dial-up environment that is increasingly under competition," he said, noting the sharp increase in companies that provide Internet access for free.
That made Time Warner's cable properties, which promise high-speed access, a huge draw. "It makes a lot of sense for AOL, but for us it's much less relevant," Koogle said. "We're agnostic to the type of access."
CAPTION: "Flexibility is what we're about," said Yahoo CEO Tim Koogle.