Investors liked Google’s new CFO from the get-go.
For starters, Ruth Porat was one of them — a Wall Street lifer. And, even more important, she would know how to address the Achilles’ heel of the Mountain View, California tech giant: its lack of financial transparency.
“Portfolio managers and analysts hate when they don’t have a company’s data, and before Ruth became CFO, people literally had to guess Google’s performance,” said James Gryta, a portfolio manager at Einbender Capital.
Porat joined Google in May 2015 after serving as Morgan Stanley’s CFO, a culmination of 23 years at the New York-based financial giant, which oversees some $417 billion in assets.
Her well-respected “street cred” as a powerbroker in the male-dominated financial sector was still not enough to shield Porat from that awkward moment when a shareholder addressed her as the “lady CFO,” instead of by her name.
But this “lady CFO” is the new go-to-Google executive for shareholders banking on her to expose and eliminate speculative ventures known as moonshots in “Googlespeak,” at least the ones that show little prospect of turning a profit.
“We use the word ‘moonshots’ to remind us to keep our visions big — to keep dreaming,” said Google X CEO Astro Teller during a TED Talk earlier this year, referencing President John F. Kennedy’s pledge that mankind would find the means to go to the moon.
Google X, nicknamed the moonshot factory, is the proving ground for radical technology meant to solve seemingly insurmountable problems, such as how to bring online 4 billion people in “rural and remote areas.”
Project Loon, one of the moonshots considered viable by Teller, involves beaming an internet connection down from a carefully-sequenced armada of high-altitude balloons that are “taught” to travel along wind currents and provide connectivity to those off the internet grid. Its name is to remind Teller and his team of the near lunacy of their proposed solution.
And last week’s hottest tech buzz came from Google’s self-driving car division, another moonshot, which announced that it will become an independent company, Waymo. Teller considers self-driving cars a possible “new way forward in mobility” that will reduce the 1.2 million annual deaths on the world’s roads.
Investors are not convinced. Gryta of Einbender Capital sees Waymo and other non-core projects as costly boondoggles sapping resources and diverting attention away from maintaining hegemony of the digital advertising market via Google Search.
“Even with a self-driving car, it will have at least six main competitors with the potential of delivering only nominal profit 20 years from now — and at what cost?” Gryta said. “Porat is offering an alternative to this disastrous attempt by the company to consistently redefine itself.”
Her decades-long career in finance, including her time as leader of Morgan Stanley’s tech finance division, which became the dominant player in tech IPOs during the dotcom boom of the late 1990s, meant that she can handle the intersection of tech and finance adeptly. And in 2012, Porat faced high-stakes corporate restructuring on the grandest scale by aiding then-U.S. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson in managing the fiscal implosions of Lehman Brothers as well as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
Google, meanwhile, was begging for a much-needed reset. Its stock price was in a funk: down 10 percent in what was a banner year for the rest of tech. The impression among investors was that they needed an advocate among the tech wunderkinds — founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin — who were lacking in financial discipline but comprised management and called all the shots.
Porat delivered. Fourth quarter earnings will be announced at the end of December and 2016 is predicted to be a record year for revenue.Third quarter revenue was Alphabet’s highest ever: $22.45 billion.
In October 2015, five months after she joined, the company said it would restructure into a new, Berkshire Hathaway-inspired holding company called Alphabet, Inc., which breaks unprofitable units out that were hiding under the umbrella of “Google” so investors know how much they are losing.
“Transparency has gone up greatly under her leadership, and investors’ reactions have been very favorable,” said Morgan Creek Capital Vice President Andrew Schmeelk. “Definitely an upgrade from the prior CFO, who didn’t go into much disclosure or detail on calls.” Google’s Class A shares have surged to $809. 28, nearly a 50 percent increase since joined Alphabet.
Porat proved to be the game-changing intermediary between the Street and Silicon Valley to fill Google’s leadership gap, but unlike her predecessor, Patrick Pichette, she had a dual mandate: serve as Google’s new CFO and simultaneously take charge as the first CFO of Alphabet.
“I think the most challenging aspect of my role has been resource prioritization, given how many exciting opportunities there are,” Porat said in an interview with Foreign Affairs.
The formation of Alphabet was designed to help enforce Google’s resource management mantra: 70 percent of time and capital allocated to core business, 20 percent to related fields and 10 percent to moonshots.
In a November 2015 letter introducing Alphabet to shareholders, Google co-founder Page described its two-tier structure which separated its alpha, Google’s core products of advertising which account for 89 percent of revenue, from the beta, henceforth to be known as “Other Bets,” like its soon-to-be defunct robotics division, Replicant.
“Google financials will be provided separately than those for the rest of Alphabet businesses as a whole,” Page said.
Segregating core Google from “Other Bets” helped the stock price, but it also exposed just how small moonshot revenue was and that profits did not exist. “Other Bets” accounted for less than 1 percent of Alphabet’s revenue while delivering all of its losses. For the three quarters reported in 2016 that amounts to $2.53 billion in the red.
The second-largest company in the world is still flush with cash, boasting a market capitalization of $556.75 billion for Class A stock and there is a $7 billion campaign to buy back Class C shares underway. Despite seeming like it has billions to burn, little mercy is shown to faltering moonshots.
Google Fiber, Alphabet’s ongoing attempt to deliver high-speed internet in designated “fiber cities,” came with a third quarter price tag of $280 million, making it the costliest of the “Other Bets.” Its CEO, Craig Barratt recently halted expansion plans to other cities and announced layoffs, including his own.
Other moonshots to lose their heads include the home automation division, Nest, as well as Project Wing, a drone delivery project, which was upstaged earlier this week by Amazon’s first successful drone delivery to a customer.
Critics argue that Porat is stifling innovation by exposing moonshots to aggressive investor scrutiny of the bottom line. In a recent Businessweek profile, several “Other Bets” insiders gave Porat the moniker “Ruthless Ruth,” for taking an ax to failing moonshots.
But Porat’s challenge is not as simple as cutting spending on moonshots. Alphabet needs to find the big ideas that will generate big bucks.
The chief financial executive is grappling with how to ensure that a full 10 percent of Alphabet’s annual net revenue, which was over $60 billion in 2015, is allocated to boundary-pushing ideas that will deliver profits in the long term and keep Alphabet ahead of the competition. The danger is that in Porat’s attempt to assuage investors’ concerns by promising strict fiscal discipline as she does in nearly every earnings call, her ax may wind up killing the next Deep Mind, Alphabet’s artificial intelligence unit, when she should have been nurturing it.
In addition to harnessing smarter and more effective ways to advertise, Deep Mind is currently being used in Porat’s home country of England, where it partnered with the National Health Service to try and improve patient care. An app called Streams was developed to alert medical staff if a patient is at risk of acute kidney failure.
“While the use of Google’s AI at the NHS primarily revolves around research, there is hope that it will help save lives,” said Daniel Race, a former manager in charge of digitizing NHS patients’ medical records. “Today’s research is tomorrow’s cure.”
Other revolutionary ideas include developing a spoon to counteract the shake of those suffering from Parkinson’s Disease and Jigsaw, a moonshot think tank dedicated to resolving geopolitical problems, like how to dissuade potential extremists from falling for online recruitment by terrorist or hate groups.
“It’s still hard to get people to push out to the 20 and harder to get them to go out to the 10,” Porat said during the Foreign Affairs interview. “But if you don’t do it, somebody else will.”
For now, though, Porat is delivering what investors want: profits. Alphabet’s third quarter net income is $19 billion, a year-over-year increase of 33 percent by focusing on protecting Alphabet’s advertising core.
“Alphabet dominates the online search market, with Google’s global market share above 80 percent, which generates strong revenue growth and cash flow,” said Morningstar Equity Analyst Ali Mogharabi.
While there is intense focus on the moonshots, Schmeelk, the vice president at Morgan Creek Capital, is betting that Porat will make sure healthy profit growth continues. Morgan Creek Capital is invested in numerous hedge funds that maintain core positions in Alphabet.
“At the end of the day, if she does her job and delivers on promises made to investors, the stock price should react accordingly,” Schmeelk said. “If anything, the stock is currently undervalued.”