Billionaire Carl Icahn steps up attack on eBay

The war of words between activist investor Carl Icahn and eBay (EBAY) heated up Monday after the billionaire accused two members of the e-commerce company’s board of directors of putting their own interests ahead of shareholders.

According to Icahn, eBay director and prominent venture capital investor Marc Andressen was a member of an investment group that acquired 70 percent of Skype from eBay in 2009 for less than what the Internet retailer had paid for the online communications service. Eighteen months later, Andressen and his partners sold Skype to Microsoft (MSFT) for $8.5 billion, about three times what they paid for it.

Andreesen, who made his fortune as the founder of Netscape, also made a tidy profit on his $150 million investment in Kynetic, which eBay unloaded as part of its $2.4 billion 2011 acquisition of GSI Commerce. Kynetic now is valued at about $3.1 billion.

"Additionally, during Mr. Andreessen’s time on the eBay Board – a time when he has been privy to nonpublic eBay Board information – he has made investments in and actively advised, no less than five direct competitors of eBay (four of which are competitors of PayPal), including Boku (mobile payments platform), Coinbase (Bitcoin wallet), Dwolla (secure online money management), Jumio (online and mobile credit card payments) and Fab (design e-commerce)," according to an open letter Icahn released today.

 EBay, which is fighting Icahn’s efforts to split up the company through a non-binding shareholder proposal, denied the accusations.

Icahn maintains that another eBay director, Intuit founder Scott Cook, also has a conflict of interest since the software company, in which he has a $1 billion interest, is a direct competitor of eBay-owned PayPal.

Icahn, a long-time corporate raider who has recently targeted Apple (AAPL) Dell and Netflix (NFLX), among others, also took a shot at eBay CEO John Donohoe, saying he appears to lack “awareness about what is going on around him on his board and in the marketplace.”

Officials at eBay, which has argued for years that there are compelling financial synergies in keeping its auction business tethered to PayPal, not surprisingly sees things differently. In a statement cited by the Wall Street Journal, eBay accused Icahn of cherry-picking "old news clips and anecdotes" out of context.

The question of whether eBay should jettison PayPal has come up before since the payment processing business is growing at a faster rate than its auction business. PayPal’s fourth-quarter revenue surged 19 percent, to $1.84 billion, while marketplace sales rose 12 percent to $1.89 billion. Analysts expect PayPal’s revenue will eventually eclipse its e-commerce operations.

Wall Street has been unhappy with eBay for a while, bolstering Ichan’s campaign. The e-commerce giant reported disappointing results in the recent critical fourth quarter and gave lackluster guidance for the current period.

Shares of eBay, which are up about 2 percent over the past year, rose 2.9 percent to $56.19 in early trading.

  • Jonathan Berr

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