At AOL, all executives who have a revenue line or manage any kind of product report to one man.The executive running AOL.com reports to this person.
So do the executives running AOL’s women brands, access business, mobile product development, and tech news sites.
On a macro level, this person is responsible for AOL’s revenues, traffic, product creation, finances, brand, and relationship with major shareholders.
This person is also the driving force behind AOL’s current strategy to be a “brand company.”
This person is not AOL CEO Tim Armstrong.
It’s COO Artie Minson.
Speaking with sources who are former and current AOL executives, we have gotten a new picture of the current leadership situation at the company, and it has become increasingly clear that the key executive in AOL’s recent stunning stock turnaround has been Minson, the one-time CFO who now controls nearly the entire company.
Armstrong remains Minson’s boss, but he has become less involved with day-to-day operations, and is focusing on AOL’s long-term strategy.
One area where Armstrong does remain deeply plugged-in is AOL’s sales. This isn’t surprising, given Armstrong’s experience as the head of sales at Google.
Minson rose to his current role after astounding Armstrong, AOL shareholders, and the AOL board through a series of brilliant maneuvers executed in the past couple years.
He joined AOL in 2009 as CFO.
One of his first big jobs was selling the wreckage of Bebo, the acquisition of which was the biggest mistake of AOL’s prior regime. He managed to do so in a clean, tax-friendly way.
Not long after that, Minson took over the company’s access business. Squeezing the last bit of juice out of AOL’s biggest cash cow was a perfect job for Minson, who cut his teeth as a world-class “optimizer” at Time Warner Cable.
In a few quarters, Minson showed he could slow, if not eliminate, the bleeding in the AOL access business.
This was a huge development for AOL because if it is going to succeed, it will be because it is able to invest the cash thrown off the access business into new products that will carry the company as subscription revenues continue to shrink.
Next, Minson took over products at AOL and became COO. He was still acting CFO, so this surprised people like former AOL product boss Brad Garlinghouse, who didn’t want to report to a bean counter. Garlinghouse soon found himself no longer working for AOL. People still with AOL say Garlinghouse’s departure signaled a new era of accountability, brought on by Minson.
Then, late last year, AOL’s management suddenly had to deal with a battle that, if they lost, would cost them all their jobs: Activist investor Starboard Value brought a proxy fight against the company.
Again, it was Minson — this time along with AOL General Counsel Julie Jacobs — who saved the day: facilitating the sale of a billion dollars worth of patents to Microsoft, and then turning around and using the money to buy back shares, triggering a remarkable move in AOL’s stock price. AOL won the proxy fight in a landslide.
Since then, Armstrong has pushed more and more onto Minson’s plate, having gone through the company’s most difficult times with him, and learning to trust him completely.
There are also some rumours that, at one point a year or so ago, Minson had a deal to take AOL private that Armstrong rejected, preferring to remain the CEO of a public company. According to this story, Minson told Armstrong that he would stay, but certain things would have to be run differently. We haven’t confirmed this rumour, but we heard it from a former senior executive at AOL, which says a lot about the way people inside the company view Minson and Armstrong’s roles and interactions.
One former AOL executive told us that, like Steve Jobs, Tim Armstrong has a “reality distortion field.” This source says that when Armstrong took over AOL in 2009, he used this power to convince many people to join AOL and help him turn it into an innovative company that would create new brands and products to attract users and grow revenues. This source says that as the years passed, however, reality has forced Armstrong to back away from this vision and view AOL more as an optimization problem.
If you want to solve an optimization problem, Minson is your man.
Now, almost none of the leaders at AOL report to Armstrong instead of Minson. Huffington Post president Arianna Huffington does, because her contract stipulates it, but she is not actually the executive who runs HuffPo’s operations. She is a “product visionary” type. The person who actually runs HuffPo’s business does report to Minson.
Turning to Minson, the ultimate optimizer, has paid off.
He has slowed the losses of AOL’s access subscribers, maximized the value of AOL’s patent portfolio, deployed AOL’s cash in a shareholder friendly way, and re-focused the AOL.com portal. He has AOL’s operations humming like they haven’t since it spun out from Time Warner.
Now AOL faces a choice.
Will it continue down the Minson path, optimising its way into an asset that creates cash for shareholders and keeps costs low? Or, will Armstrong, in his new role as strategic visionary, find a way for AOL innovate, to grow its user base and revenues?
Time will tell.
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