At a D9 conference chat Wednesday night, All Things Digital's Kara Swisher asked Alibaba Group CEO: "Could you buy Yahoo someday?"
Ma's response: "I would love to, if someone would lend me the money."
(Also see: Carol Bartz: From blustery to bizarre)
Barring that hypothetical deal, Ma said, Yahoo and its shareholders might be best served by dividing the Internet pioneer "into a few small companies."
"They should be more open-minded about ways to solve their problems," he added.
That last sentence might not sound like much, but you better believe it was a direct criticism of Bartz, for whom Ma clearly has little use. The bad vibes go back to Bartz's initial weeks as CEO of Yahoo in early 2009.
(Quick setup: In 2005, Yahoo co-founder and then-CEO Jerry Yang invested $1 billion in Alibaba Group for a 40% stake in the Chinese e-commerce company, an investment that now is worth about $10 billion. Three weeks ago, a public dispute between Yahoo and Alibaba erupted over the Chinese company transferring ownership of its Alipay online payment unit to a company run by Ma. Yahoo claimed it was blindsided; Alibaba says the deal was discussed with board members for many months. Supposedly they've come to some sort of agreement over compensation to Yahoo.)
Here's Ma's recounting of their initial meeting, as told to Forbes.com's Gady Epstein:
Ma's relationship with Yang's successor at Yahoo, Carol Bartz, began badly at their first meeting at Yahoo headquarters in March 2009. Yang introduced the two CEOs, then left the room. Bartz proceeded to dress down Ma in front of his entire senior management team over Alibaba's handling of Yahoo China, according to people in the room. "I'm going to be blunt because that's my reputation," she supposedly told Ma. "I want you to take our name off that site," she said, referring to Yahoo China, which by that time had withered into irrelevance.
Unbelievable, isn't it? There's so much in that exchange. Not only is it rude and condescending on every level, it betrays a colossal ignorance of the importance of "saving face" (and the dangers of "losing face") in Asian cultures. There Bartz was, dressing down Ma in front of his own management team! And the self-regard! "I'm going to be blunt because that's my reputation."
Who cares about her reputation? Honestly. Also, can you imagine how Yang would have felt if he stayed in that room? He would have been the first non-cartoon character in history to shrink out of embarrassment, because he would have known exactly what just went down.
By the way, if you think I'm hard on Bartz, you really should read Eric Jackson over at Forbes. Some excerpts from his April 20 column on Yahoo's earnings:
Yahoo! (YHOO) is continuing to trade at a major discount. And loud and very self-confident CEO Carol Bartz is doing nothing to rectify that problem. ...
The truth is that investors are fed up with Bartz. Their enmity towards Bartz is palpable when you talk to them.Bartz talked a big game coming into the job and she hasn’t delivered. It’s that simple.
Then, last Friday, Jackson wrote:
The bottom line is that Carol deserves no respect for her performance as Yahoo! CEO. She actually deserves Yahoo!’s investors’ fears. Why? Because there is a CEO running this company who is completely out of touch with the company she’s running and with her estimation of her own abilities. She shouldn’t have taken this job.
Yet, at the same Investors Day, Bartz blurted out this defiant gem: "I would insist that you give us some credit for turning this company around."
Yahoo has a shareholders meeting scheduled for June 23. Jackson says he thinks Bartz should resign immediately, but failing that, he plans to vote that day against her re-election to the company's board of directors.
If I were a qualified Yahoo shareholder, I'd be voting right along with him. Bartz is a train wreck. Except she'll walk away from the disaster with millions. Yahoo won't be so fortunate.