There was no reason to believe, when John Donahoe became CEO of eBay in 2008, that the former consultant had much chance of reversing the fortunes of a company that appeared to be in decline.
Nothing personal against Donahoe, mind you. It's just nearly impossible to turn around a Web-based business. No one had done it, so why should Donahoe be any different?
Yet more than four years later, eBay is roaring ahead, with analysts gushing over its performance. Not only has the stock more than doubled in the past year, it could eclipse its all-time high in the coming months.
That kind of comeback is not only astonishing, it's potentially historic. And that makes it reasonable to ask: Is Donahoe the best CEO in Silicon Valley?
"What John Donahoe has accomplished over the past few years is one of the most remarkable feats in the valley's history," said Gil Luria, an analyst at Wedbush Securities.
Think about the names that might typically come to mind for such a title. Reed Hastings at Netflix. Larry Ellison at Oracle. Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook. Tim Cook at Apple. Marc Benioff at Salesforce.com. Each has done many impressive things.
But it's hard to find anyone who has done more for their company than Donahoe.
Consider the circumstances when he took over as CEO of eBay in March 2008, inheriting the company from his predecessor, Meg Whitman. While eBay's financials were still
Indeed, eBay's stock had been falling, and went right over a cliff not long after Donahoe took over and announced the need for a radical revamp of the company. Throw in the global financial crisis, and the stock that had once traded at more than $58 per share in 2004 fell to almost $10 per share in February 2009.
Since then, the stock has been on a steady march upward, closing at $48.69 on Friday. Many analysts have targets over its all-time high.
So what has Donahoe done right?
Luria noted that the company began investing more in its technology and was willing to take big risks in terms of changing the look and feel of the shopping experience. These investments took time to bear fruit, but in recent months the company has overhauled its homepage, making it more visual, re-engineering its search functions, and building in more personalization to take advantage of the wealth of data it collects.
It also recently unveiled eBay Now to offer same-day delivery of products from online and offline merchants in San Francisco.
"We view eBay Now as one of the most innovative products eBay has launched in some time," wrote ThinkEquity analyst Ron Josey wrote in early October.
Innovative and eBay. Two words not spoken in the same sentence for a long time.
The eBay Now service is a mobile app, and it's one of many examples of how the company has embraced mobile shopping, both through designing new products and through acquisitions. The company has mobile pricing scanners for people to compare prices in shops. It's also released a mobile classified app that has been downloaded more than 500,000 times in just a few months.
That is just part of Donahoe's vision to expand eBay from its e-commerce beginnings to become a larger player in offline shopping as well.
"We've gone from competing in a $500 billion e-commerce market to now a $10 trillion retail market," Donahue told analysts on a recent earnings call.
His ability to pull off that shift will ultimately define this legacy.
"I'd say the agenda he set for eBay going forward is fairly ambitious," Luria said. "The thing to look for in the next few years is how he delivers on that promise."
Skeptics remain. Sucharita Mulpuru-Kodali, a Forrester analyst, noted that while eBay's traditional marketplaces have improved, the bulk of growth and profits are still coming from its PayPal unit, as has been the case for years.
And Mulpuru-Kodali said she's not sold on the notion that eBay will ever be a big player in offline commerce, or be able to get its traditional marketplaces growing at anywhere near the pace they did a decade ago.
"I just don't see where all this gushing is coming from," Mulpuru-Kodali.
For now, though, such critiques represent the minority view, emblematic of just how much attitudes about eBay have shifted under Donahoe. As of this moment, observers, when pressed, say eBay's comeback is only eclipsed by one other high-tech second act: Apple under Steve Jobs.
As Luria said: "That's pretty good company to be in."