Google's Nice Guy in Chief Gets Ready for a Fight -- WSJ

09/12/2020 | 02:48am
Sundar Pichai

His compassionate style helped propel Sundar Pichai to the top at the search giant. Now, he's contending with possible antitrust lawsuits, a recent revenue drop and pressure to prune Alphabet's empire -- or chart a new path for the company.

By Rob Copeland 

If there's one thing most people agree on about Google chief executive Sundar Pichai, it is that he is nice.

"He's really thoughtful and incredibly kind," says Google hardware chief Rick Osterloh. "Sundar's temperament is just excellent," says former executive Keval Desai. "He always loves sharing stories about his kids," says current Googler Rishi Chandra.

So it seems fair to say that Google, one of the world's largest and most influential companies, is led by a stand-up guy. His deliberately low-key style helped get him the top job at a company with a history of clashing personalities.

Almost everyone also agrees, however, that won't be enough for what looms next.

State and federal prosecutors are expected to file antitrust lawsuits as soon as this month, asserting that Google's colossal advertising operation rigs prices artificially high. The allegations, which Google broadly denies, cast Mr. Pichai in the opposite role to one he held early in his career. Roughly 15 years ago, he was Google's point person for antitrust regulators -- and he helped convince European authorities to file charges against then-dominant Microsoft Corp., former executives say.

Google, long revered in Silicon Valley for its brainpower and creativity, is also in an extended stretch of innovation stasis. Nearly all its recent growth has come from vacuuming up ever more online advertising. Google has yet to have a hardware hit despite years of well-funded efforts, and outlying arms such as Waymo, the self-driving car division, bleed money with few results to show so far. The company hasn't had a big consumer hit in a decade. Amid the pandemic, it posted lower quarterly revenue for the first time in its history, while other tech giants powered through with strong results.

Those pressures mean that Mr. Pichai, 48 years old, may need to start making the sort of painful choices he has been able to avoid so far. Prosecutors could try to force him to prune key pieces of Google's global empire. He's also facing internal pressure to chart a new path for the search giant beyond digital advertising.

Mr. Pichai, chief executive of Google since 2015, was promoted in December to lead parent Alphabet Inc., replacing company co-founder Larry Page. The elevation capped a 16-year tenure at Google that brought Mr. Pichai from an unknown product manager into Mr. Page's "L-Team," an inner circle of executives. Almost everyone else on the team has left Google, felled by a mix of strategic errors, opportunities elsewhere and a cluster of alleged sexual harassment.

Mr. Pichai has largely avoided outright conflict in a company that thrives on it. He has built allies across the company, having taken on projects across Google's myriad arms, as well as in the executive suite, including a few trips to Burning Man with Mr. Page. He is quiet in most meetings and silent in others, frequently answering questions indirectly or asking for more time to make decisions in private. He can be seen pacing the halls, alone with his thoughts, before big meetings, employees say.

"He got the CEO job," says Mr. Desai, "because he was the only person who didn't want the CEO job."

Founded in 1998 as a search engine with a mission to "organize the world's information," Google is one of America's last great conglomerates, with more than 200,000 full-time and contract workers.

Parent Alphabet serves billions of global consumers on and offline, including a hardware division, its YouTube video platform and an internet provider.

Plenty is going right at Google. Since Mr. Pichai's promotion at Google in October 2015, Alphabet stock is up 112%. The company churned out $35 billion in profits in the past year alone.

A creature of habit, Mr. Pichai frequently goes to the same takeout Mexican spot for a vegetarian burrito on visits to Google's offices in Seoul. He travels with his own ginger ale and ginger lozenges in case he falls ill, and is a chewing gum fanatic. Colleagues say they know they can often catch a few moments with him at Google's free commissary, when he reloads on gum daily.

Mr. Pichai can be cautious to the extreme. In late July public testimony for the House of Representatives, he declined at first to answer whether Google would disavow the use of slave labor to manufacture its products, saying he would need to "discuss it further."

Amazon.com Inc. chief executive Jeff Bezos, asked the same question a moment later, answered, "Yes."

Some current and former executives say they find it hard to read his mood. Several top executives, including the former heads of cloud computing and search, have resigned out of frustration with his languid pace of decision making, people familiar with their decisions say.

"If there is a current criticism of [Mr. Pichai] inside Google, it's that there are too many competing voices and not enough perspective from Sundar on what we actually need to do," says one current Google executive.

Mr. Chandra, vice president of Google's Nest unit, says last year he sent the CEO a prototype smart home controller, and received only one piece of feedback: Add a selfie mode to the camera. Mr. Pichai said the note came from his kids.

Mr. Pichai, along with Mr. Page and Google co-founder Sergey Brin, declined requests to be interviewed. Through a representative, Mr. Pichai suggested several current and former subordinates and colleagues to speak on his behalf. Though all were complimentary of his leadership, few appeared to know him well personally. One said he loved margaritas; another said Mr. Pichai preferred Italian wines.

"He's compassionate, so he cares about people," says Hiroshi Lockheimer, a Google senior vice president who oversees divisions including mobile platform Android and browser Chrome. "It's the kind of thing that you feel, but you can't necessarily say that one moment that it happened in the case of."

Mr. Pichai's low-key image can mask a deft hand at internal politics, one that prizes appearances and fealty to the company, current and former executives say. One former executive recalls once disagreeing with Mr. Pichai in a meeting with Mr. Page. Mr. Pichai showed no reaction in the moment, but cornered the subordinate right after they left the room. "We should never disagree in front of Larry," Mr. Pichai said, quietly.

Stepping in

Unlike Mr. Pichai, the company's longest-serving chief executive, Eric Schmidt, reveled in the spotlight. Hired in 2001, he oversaw the acquisitions that continue to form the backbone of modern Google, including YouTube, Android and the advertising powerhouse DoubleClick. The company's 2004 initial public offering helped make Mr. Schmidt a multibillionaire, which he parlayed into roles as an influential political donor.

In 2011 Mr. Schmidt was succeeded by Mr. Page, which the company said was to speed up decision making. Mr. Page, whose hard edges include a tendency to dismiss ideas he doesn't like as "stupid," vastly expanded the company's so-called moonshot bets and debated big ideas including acquiring Tesla Inc. He plowed Google into disparate ideas such as balloons that beam internet access from the sky, and a scientific unit that tries to come up with solutions to combat the aging process.

In 2012, Mr. Page announced he suffered from a rare vocal paralysis and bowed out of most public appearances. Into the void stepped a group of lesser-known executives.

They included Mr. Pichai (pronounced pih-chai), who was an old hand inside Google. Born in midsize city of Madurai in southern India, he slept on the living room floor next to his younger brother for years growing up. Mr. Pichai would later tell colleagues that two of the most memorable moments of his childhood were the days his family bought a refrigerator and a rotary telephone.

"He relates personally to what it means when a piece of technology comes in and fundamentally alters your life," says Google's Jennifer Fitzpatrick, one of the company's first employees.

Mr. Pichai earned an undergraduate degree from the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur, and later went to both Stanford University and the Wharton business school on scholarships. Mr. Pichai's first plane ticket to the U.S. cost his father, an electrical engineer, the equivalent of more than a year's salary.

He joined Google in 2004, after positions at semiconductor company Applied Materials and consulting firm McKinsey & Co.

These were boom times in Silicon Valley and at Google in particular. After a bumpy road to an offering, the company's IPO was a hit, and the company was flush with cash and new ideas. Mr. Pichai was put in charge of an effort to convince competitors like Dell Inc. to essentially pre-install the company's flagship search engine on computers world-wide. It was a success.

Mr. Pichai began to receive top assignments. He worked behind the scenes to organize data and present Google's case to antitrust regulators against Microsoft, then owner of the dominant internet browser. The European Union later fined Microsoft a record $732 million for alleged competitive infractions -- a penalty that would be exceeded only by Google's own $5 billion punishment in 2018, when Mr. Pichai was CEO.

Mr. Pichai became more well-known, at least among technologists, in 2008, when he co-led development of the Chrome internet browser, a faster, stripped-down version of Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Chrome now has roughly 70% of global market share.

Dominance

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