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Motorola Mobility's new CEO: who is Dennis Woodside?

Motorola Mobility's new CEO: who is Dennis Woodside?


Google has replaced Motorola Mobility's CEO, Sanjay Jha, with long-time Google executive Dennis Woodside. We take a closer look at Woodside's history with Google and his career as a whole.

Dennis Woodside
Dennis Woodside

It's been months in the making, but Google has finally secured approval from the US, EU, and China to purchase Motorola Mobility, the consumer-facing side of the legendary hardware manufacturer, and as of today the $12.5 billion deal is complete. Other than the fact that Google now owns a massive hardware company and a portfolio of useful patents, the biggest news today is that Motorola Mobility's CEO, Sanjay Jha, has been replaced by a Google executive named Dennis Woodside.

Don't be concerned if that name doesn't ring a bell — it's likely that the first time you heard of Woodside was when Bloomberg rumored in February that he would be given the top spot at Motorola Mobility following the acquisition. However, we suspect that we'll be hearing a lot from the new CEO over the coming months and years as Google works to keep other Android OEMs happy while attempting to make Motorola profitable. While Woodside may have kept things quiet in the public sphere, he's certainly been making waves in Silicon Valley. In fact, Apple CEO Tim Cook attempted to poach him from Google by offering him the position to become the Cupertino-based company's head of sales — a role that Woodside turned down thanks to assurances from Google that he'd be given "greater responsibilities," according to Bloomberg Businessweek. It looks like the search company has made good on its promise.

"I know you've been looking for a challenge."

43-year-old Dennis Woodside got his start at Google back in 2003, and ever since he's been heavily involved in the company's core business: advertising. He doesn't have much of an online presence (he's without a publicly-active Google+ profile, and his LinkedIn account was recently taken offline), but he has managed Google's relationships with major partners and advertisers, and for a long time he was instrumental in getting international advertisers to get online and spend money with Google to promote their products. Unlike many of his Google colleagues, Woodside doesn't have much knowledge of the technical side of hardware and software, and, unlike most in his position, he doesn't have a business degree, either. Instead, Woodside graduated from Cornell University in 1991 with a degree in Industrial Relations (he was also a triathlete), and he went on from there to Stanford University — a Google favorite — to get a law degree in 1995. Fresh out of law school, Woodside worked as a law clerk for the US Court of Appeals in New York City, and was involved with cases such as the first bombing of the World Trade Center, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.

As shown on Woodside's LinkedIn profile, after a stint as an attorney at a Los Angeles-based law firm dealing with mergers and acquisitions (experience that would surely help him manage Google's acquisition of Motorola), he got his start in business with a role as Associate Principle at McKinsey & Company, a management consulting firm, for over 5 years. McKinsey would be Woodside's stepping stone to Google, and ultimately his new position as Motorola Mobility's CEO.

In 2003, as a director of business operations at Google, Woodside was tasked with running the still-new search company's field operations for Central Europe, Russia, North Africa, and the Middle East. He lasted until 2005 before getting promoted; in that time he helped Google go international by opening ten new offices overseas. Afterwards, he remained abroad, taking up a position as Google's managing director of emerging markets before heading sales and operations of the search company's UK and Irish unit until 2009. If it's not clear already, Woodside's spent plenty of time outside the US — he says his "global perspective" makes him unique — and when abroad he spent much of his time in knowledge-sharing roles. As he said in a 2010 Paley Center for Media interview, this meant that he had to "work with advertisers to understand the potential of the web" and encouraging "them to experiment in ways they might not have been comfortable with in the past." That's something that most US companies are well aware of, but something that businesses in Turkey, for instance, are not as familiar with.

"A lot of what I did was work with advertisers to understand the potential of the web."

In 2009 Woodside came back to the US to take up Google's primary advertising sales job, Vice President of American Operations. The move made news because he replaced Tim Armstrong, who left the company to become CEO of AOL. Like his prior international gigs, the new role saw Woodside foster relationships with advertisers and executives. This often involved informing them of where the online advertising industry was going (in the mobile space, for example) in the next two to three years and guiding them through the online marketing space. As Woodside explained it back in that 2010 Paley Center interview, the question that he had to help US companies deal with was, "how do they adjust their entire business model to reflect the fact that their consumer is increasingly living more and more of their lives online?" After forming relationships, he was then able to show how Google's particular ad services could solve their problems. He appears to have been successful in this space: according to his Motorola Mobility executive profile, revenue bumped up from $10.8 billion in 2009 to $17.5 billion in 2011, when he again took up a new position at Google.

In the fall of 2011 Woodside became a Google Senior Vice President, and he was put in charge of leading Motorola Mobility's transition following its $12.5 billion acquisition. It was around this time that CEO Larry Page offered Woodside the top position at Motorola Mobility. Woodside recalled to Bloomberg Businessweek: "He said, ‘I know you've been looking for a challenge. I want you to run Motorola. I think you'd be great at it. Can you let me know by tonight?'"

"Suspicions of Google will be there until there's evidence that they don't need to be."

If it's a challenge that Woodside wanted, that's what he's got. The company posted a loss of $86 million last quarter on $3.1 billion in revenue, and the company's 2011 year-end tally was in the red to the tune of $249 million. Beyond the challenge to return Motorola Mobility to profitability, the newly-minted CEO should have his hands full navigating the treacherous waters that surround Google's acquisition. Other Android manufacturers are concerned that a close Motorola-Google relationship will put them at a disadvantage, and if Google can't earn their trust they may very well look to other operating systems to build their phones on. If that weren't enough, sources have told us that that Motorola's culture under previous CEO Sanjay Jha was focused on the bottom line, and that the company's engineering talent is uneven. If Woodside hopes to get the company producing devices that captivate consumers again, he'll undoubtedly need to address these issues.

If you were afraid that Motorola — the inventor of the cellphone — was going to get out of the handset business, Woodside says that isn't the case. For what it's worth, he says that "my job is to make Motorola as successful as possible and deliver innovative hardware as a licensee of Android." He claims that "Google has always been interested in hardware," and that "the natural next step is for us to get even more serious and to really go for it." There's no secret to success here: the new CEO told Bloomberg Businessweek that he and the company will cut down the number of smartphones it offers and focus on speed, battery life, and camera performance. Easier said than done, but if he's got one thing going for him, it's that the company doesn't have too worry too much about its bottom line for the immediate future: "It may not be make-or-break in a financial sense, but clearly it's very important for us to make this successful."