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Tue, Apr 27, 2004 - Page 12 News List

Battle of wills over Google's future


Not every company would coyly spurn billions of dollars and front-page attention. Yet Google seems intent on staying private as long as possible despite the clamoring of investors to own a piece of a company that has become synonymous with instant information on the Web.

There are many good reasons to avoid a public stock offering and the close scrutiny it brings. Indeed, this week the scrutiny will intensify as the company approaches a deadline to file financial disclosures.

But in Google's case, its hesitancy up to this point has been a symptom of a long-running battle for control between its two brainy, headstrong founders and the powerful, strong-willed financiers who gave them the money to turn their graduate school project into one of the world's leading brands, according to several people in and outside Google.

The two founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who own perhaps 40 percent of the company, could become billionaires several times over if they take it public.

But according to people who have dealt with them, they are less interested in cashing out than in maintaining their ability to direct Google's ambitious strategy and idiosyncratic style.

A lawyer who has worked for Google remarked, "There are a lot of quirky demands that are made over there that are not made by traditional financial market considerations but are more about control of the founders."

For the two venture capitalists -- John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Michael Moritz of Sequoia Capital Partners -- the motives are more clearly financial.

They have benefited by agreeing to Page and Brin's request to delay a stock offering while the company and its perceived market value grew rapidly.

But now, with competition from Microsoft on the distant horizon, it may be an ideal time to cash in on the investment.

Kleiner Perkins and Sequoia invested US$25 million in June 1999, buying about 25 percent of the company, according to people involved in the transaction.

If a publicly traded Google became worth, say, US$20 billion, that would give the investors an 800-fold return on their money, making it one of the best investments in history.

And since many of their other investments made at the peak of the Internet boom have collapsed, the two venture capitalists need a big return from Google all the more.

Attention is being focused this week on Google because Thursday is the deadline for it to file financial disclosures under US Securities and Exchange Commission rules.

It could meet those requirements by filing papers for a public stock offering -- what the venture capitalists are said to favor.

Or it could simply file the disclosure papers, perhaps along with a statement that it will begin eventually to move toward a public offering.

A person close to the company said last week that it would proceed with this slower course.

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