ATHERTON, Calif. -- Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman helped build the online auctioneer into an American icon and transform the way individuals do business on the Internet.
Her status in Silicon Valley rivaled that of Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison when she left the company this year after a decade to help her friend, Mitt Romney, run for president. Romney's run wasn't successful. But another bid for high office — her own as California governor in 2010 — may be in the cards.
Whitman has said she would consider a run and has retained the political consulting firm run by Steve Schmidt, former adviser to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Schmidt now runs the day-to-day operations of the McCain campaign.
But the outgoing Whitman offers only a sly smile when asked about her political aspirations. When pressed on whether she would rule out a run, she says, "Never say never."
The 52-year-old billionaire — arguably the most successful female tech CEO ever, got her first taste of politics on the finance team of former candidate Romney, her boss in the '80s at consulting firm Bain & Co. She is national co-chairwoman of Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign.
Whitman lines up with McCain on many issues — especially his economic plan of lower taxes and reduced government spending. She doesn't, however, agree with his call for overturning the abortion-rights decision, Roe v. Wade.
In California, Whitman said she supports Schwarzenegger's philosophy of avoiding tax increases to address the state's budget shortfall. But she said she had not examined his proposals for across-the-board cuts closely enough to offer an opinion.
"Meg's record as a can-do executive and brilliant strategist would make her an obvious choice for leading California," Romney says.
One thing is certain: Another CEO post is unlikely.
"It was a privilege to serve (at eBay)," says Whitman, seated in the living room of her New England Colonial home in Silicon Valley, reflecting on her success at eBay ebay, political aspirations and where the Valley is headed.
"I loved every minute of it," says Whitman, who doubts she will run another company after 33 years in business.
Politics would seem a logical next step. Whether it's artfully handling a customer's exotic monkey crawling on her shoulder while signing autographs at the company's big user conference, eBay Live, or delivering a speech on the economy at the Republican National Convention, Whitman has an affinity for connecting with people.
McCain recently called her one of the three wisest people he knows and even considered her as a running mate.
"Meg has been a terrific fundraiser and has played an important strategic role (on the McCain campaign)," says Carly Fiorina, another high-profile former CEO and a top economic adviser to McCain. "We have collaborated on a range of efforts from economic policy to a focus on small business. … It has been a rare opportunity to work with Meg."
The eBay story
Whitman is one of the unlikeliest Silicon Valley billionaires. She had to be persuaded to move from Boston, where she marketed Teletubbies for Hasbro, to join eBay in 1998. She poured her renowned energy into the job, hired world-class executives and parlayed her expertise in brand-building to transform eBay into an e-commerce powerhouse.
"We went from start-up to grown-up," she says. "We made business history. At its core, eBay helped people make a living doing what they love."
The eBay playbook "was as much about exclusion as about taking action. We would avoid acquisitions and expansion into other countries if we thought it didn't work."
In 2006, $52 billion worth of goods changed hands on eBay in 38 countries, says eBay. It is one of the most well-known brand names in the world, with a market value of $30.7 billion.
"Meg is a remarkable leader," says eBay CEO John Donahoe, who succeeded Whitman. "She has always been a champion of entrepreneurs and small-business people."
Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers says she "is a great leader and represents many of the best attributes of Silicon Valley in terms of openness, inclusion and her ability to bring out the best in those around her."
That was clear shortly after Whitman became eBay CEO in March 1998 and stood firm in her belief that it should stick with building its base of sellers of collectibles rather than try to diversify. It now sells products in more than 50,000 categories.
"I decided to do one thing at 100%," says Whitman. "We built collectibles, then we moved into other businesses."
Whitman, who remains on eBay's board and has weekly strategy meetings with Donahoe, left the company with only two regrets, she says. It should have expanded to Japan sooner, and it could have avoided a major outage on June 10, 1999, with better technology in place. "In the end, you are responsible for what happens," she says.
To be sure, challenges still face eBay.
Many sellers are miffed about changes eBay made in its fee structures. It forecast a weak third quarter and left its full-year estimates unchanged in the face of a slumping U.S. economy. EBay shares are drooping. And competition from Amazon.com has analysts wondering what's next for eBay.
"EBay is grappling, like some tech companies, with a soft economy and a maturing industry," says analyst Patti Freeman Evans at JupiterResearch. "Overall, though, she left the company in good shape."
The attributes that made Whitman one of the most successful female CEOs — boundless energy, a disciplined management style and her ability to connect with people — could translate swimmingly into a political career, says Lezlee Westine, CEO of TechNet, a bipartisan political network of techCEOs. "She is a superstar," she says.
Whitman grew up in a Republican family on Long Island, but until recently she was registered as an independent. "I had voted Republican most of the time, but I wasn't entirely sure, and I thought, Let's just do 'decline to state,' " she says.
A call from Mitt Romney
She wasn't politically active until Romney called in late 2006, she said. Speculation about a political future began after she met some "very influential and senior Republicans" and big donors while raising $12 million in California for Romney. Some of those Republican heavyweights said, " 'You should think about this,' " she recalls.
After Romney suspended his campaign, McCain contacted Whitman, seeking her help.
For now, she says, she is committed full time to helping McCain become president and focused on ensuring a smooth transition for eBay CEO Donahoe. Whitman also is taking back some household responsibilities from her neurosurgeon husband, Griffith Harsh, who picked up the slack to raise their two sons while she was at eBay for 10 years.
"Between now and Nov. 4, 100% of my time is working for McCain," says Whitman.
"The eBay model is very Republican in its essence — it's about making a small number of rules and getting out of the way," she says.