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Yahoo Restructuring Begins Slowly With Stealth Layoffs and 'Invest/Maintain/Kill' List

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer has a list.

Warp Films

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer has a list.

And on it are exactly three options, according to numerous sources close to the situation: Invest/Maintain/Kill.

You get the idea pretty quickly — and that is now the guiding force behind the restructuring of the Silicon Valley Internet giant, which has begun slowly at the company with Mayer’s old trick of stealth layoffs using performance metrics. This time, though, that is expected to be followed by more substantive firing numbers that managers will begin to receive in the next two weeks.

Thus begin the cost controls that investors have long wanted from Mayer, but which she will do her own way. Hence the surgical nature of the first cuts, which sources said is impacting all levels of employees across Yahoo. These have happened regularly during Mayer’s multi-year tenure — basically a sneakier way to let go of people and not catch flack for it.

After that, sources said, the company will begin to shed more jobs, although it is not clear if the effort will be as wide-ranging as some outsiders have demanded. Those cuts will focus on that list of what Mayer thinks should be invested in (mobile search), maintained (core media sites like Yahoo finance) and killed (international assets and lower-performing media sites).

The majority of the cuts are expected to come after Yahoo announces its earnings next week, when Mayer and increasingly restless CFO Ken Goldman should shed some light on the actions.

Of course, earnings will be as lackluster as ever, said insiders, especially since the company has continued to lose a series of sales execs, particularly at its BrightRoll programmatic video advertising platform after its one-year acquisition cliff was reached. For example, sources said Craig Whitmer, VP of platform sales, is headed out the door, along with a half-dozen more important staffers in the unit.

Despite layoffs, this kind of brain drain of needed talent is happening at all levels, even those close to Mayer. Consider Shweta Vohra, who worked on strategy for Mayer directly and is now chief of staff to CEO Evan Williams of Medium.

Vohra is just the kind of smart and ambitious young exec that Yahoo can ill afford to lose, especially as it tries to move forward the spin process for the core Internet assets. That work is being handled in large part by new Mayer favorite Ian Weingarten, who is SVP of corporate development and partnerships at Yahoo.

At the same time in the next weeks, the interest in buying Yahoo from outsiders will increase as a number of possible buyers start to make real moves. Let’s be clear: Right now there is not what one would call an active sale process going on inside Yahoo, although it has plenty of advisers around, including Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan Chase.

But there is a much quieter trend of still muted incoming interest from large telcos (Verizon, AT&T), private equity firms (TPG) and media giants (News Corp).

Most peg the cost of buying Yahoo — after the core is separated from its Alibaba Group assets — to be from $6 billion to $8 billion.

“The question is, are we serious, or are we just making it seem so to stave off activists,” said one person close to the board of Yahoo. “It is our fiduciary duty to engage, and we will always do our fiduciary duty, even if we are not proactively trying to do anything.”

Looking busy is perhaps the most important thing that Mayer needs to project next week, especially with the looming possibility of a proxy fight. The size of that battle will start to be clear in February when sources say persistent Yahoo thorn Starboard Value seems set to nominate a slate of new directors (check out the slate it put up when it was fighting AOL in 2012 for some clues to the kinds of board members it will choose).

While things could change, the board’s recent decision to reverse its plans to spin off Yahoo’s stake in China’s Alibaba Group, but not explicitly say the company is for sale, really ticked off Starboard’s Jeff Smith.

What should Mayer do to address that? One top communications exec — Yahoo’s own PR head is wildly inexperienced, given what the company is facing and especially given how woefully incompetent the unit has been until now — said that the high-profile exec should continue to stay below the radar.

“It is time for her to listen to people who will help her see that she is in a really tight spot and that she has been tone deaf to that in so many ways,” said the comms exec. “I’d not let her out until she gets that if she is not crushing it in her business, she needs to not say much.”

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