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Google’s Chief Works to Trim a Bloated Ship

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.—Larry Page, Google’s chief executive, so hates wasting time at meetings that he once dumped his secretary to avoid being scheduled for them. He does not much like e-mail either—even his own Gmail—saying the tedious back-and-forth takes too long to solve problems.

Google co-founder Larry Page looks on during a product launch in February at the eBay headquarters in San Jose, California.
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Google co-founder Larry Page looks on during a product launch in February at the eBay headquarters in San Jose, California.

Mr. Page has never been more impatient than he is now. He is on an urgent mission to pull Google through a midlife crisis that threatens to knock it off its perch as the coolest company in Silicon Valley.

Founded in 1998, Google is not yet 15, but in tech years, it is an aging giant that moves a lot slower than it did when it was a hot start-up. It is losing employees to the new, hotter start-ups, and is being pushed around by government regulators and competitors like Facebook, Apple and Amazon , which are all vying for people’s online time.

So Mr. Page, Google’s co-founder and former chief executive, who returned to the top job in April, is making changes large and small. He dropped more than 25 projects, saying they were not popular enough. He masterminded Google’s biggest deal by billions, the $12.5 billion Motorola Mobility bid, a bold move that positions the company to enter the hardware business.

Borrowing from the playbooks of executives like Steven P. Jobs and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, he has put his personal imprint on the corporate culture, from discouraging excessive use of e-mail to embracing quick, unilateral decision-making—by him, if need be.

“Ever since taking over as C.E.O., I have focused much of my energy on increasing Google’s velocity and execution, and we’re beginning to see results,” Mr. Page, 38, told analysts recently.

Naysayers fret that in his rush to refocus the company, and especially in ending projects, he risks squelching Google’s trademark innovation, which bubbles up when engineers are given the time to experiment. “He’s going to lose some people at the end of the day,” said one employee who, like others, agreed to speak only anonymously because the company bars them from talking to the press without prior approval.

“He’s certainly been active,” said Mark Mahaney, an analyst covering Google at Citigroup . “Whether he’ll be active and successful, we don’t know.”

His new responsibilities have changed Mr. Page, an engineer by training and personality. Judging by his few public appearances, he has learned to talk the corporate talk to shareholders and analysts, though he still generally declines to speak to the press, including for this article.

He even broke down and hired an administrative assistant, after letting his previous one go years ago. She schedules him for those dreaded meetings. But they are only 50 minutes long, because in one of his first companywide memos after he took the job, he decreed that hourlong meetings must allow time for a bathroom break in between.

Despite the many external pressures on Google, it is dominant in its business and highly profitable. But, when asked at a recent conference about the biggest threat to his company, Mr. Page answered in one word, “Google.”

The problem was that the company had ballooned so quickly—it now has more than 31,000 employees and $27.3 billion in revenue so far this year—that it had become sclerotic. A triumvirate of Mr. Page, his co-founder, Sergey Brin, and Eric E. Schmidt, Google’s former chief and current chairman, had to agree before anything could be done. The unwieldy management and glacial pace of decision-making were particularly noticeable in the Valley, where start-ups overtake behemoths in months.

It is different now.

“It’s much more of a style like Steve Jobs than the three-headed monster that Google was,” said a former Google executive who has spoken with current executives about the changes and spoke anonymously to preserve business relationships. “When Eric was there, you’d walk into a product meeting or a senior staff meeting, and everyone got to weigh in on every decision. Larry is much more willing to make an O.K. decision and make it now, rather than a perfect decision later.”

The changes began just a week after Mr. Page started the new job. He streamlined Google’s notoriously labyrinthine structure, and sent the e-mail on meetings. He began requiring senior executives to show up at headquarters for an informal face-to-face meeting at least once a week to plow through decisions, an idea he borrowed from Mr. Bloomberg.

Salar Kamangar, senior vice president of YouTube, said Mr. Page forced him and another executive to settle a dispute in person that they had been waging over e-mail. “He called us into the office that day, very principal-style, and made sure we resolved the difference before we left the room,” Mr. Kamangar said.

Although Mr. Page is more attentive to detail than Mr. Schmidt—becoming deeply involved in initiatives as small as giving Gmail’s home page a bigger sign-in box — he is also pushing employees to think big. “He tried to get all of us to step back a little bit and just make sure that the long-term things weren’t getting drowned out by the incremental,” said Alan Eustace, senior vice president for search.

The most significant change at the company is the killing of projects Mr. Page deems unworthy. One of the initiatives he has abandoned is Google Buzz, an ill-fated social networking tool.

Some employees find it frustrating to discover they do not fit into Mr. Page’s plans. “These teams are unfortunate casualties of these types of decisions,” one said.

Google risks losing its next business before it has time to grow, some say. Gmail, for instance, grew out of so-called 20 percent time, which Google gives employees to experiment with new ideas.

That risk is worth it, and signals a more mature Google, Mr. Brin said in a recent interview.

“We’ve launched some weaker services, honestly,” he said. “We don’t want to be left with a complicated array of good-but-not-great services.”

Still, Mr. Page remains popular among the rank and file, not the least because he has “geek street cred,” another employee said.

That does not go over as well with the outside world, and Mr. Schmidt has remained the public face of Google in many instances at conferences and before the Senate. But Mr. Page has showed newfound warmth on earnings conference calls that are obligatory for chief executives. At a recent one, his long speech began, “I’m excited to be on the call.”

He has also been forced to adjust to other aspects of the chief executive job, like near-constant demands on his time.

Some of the only personal posts on his public Google+ account these days are kiteboarding pictures from a trip to Alaska. “These are from a while ago,” he wrote—there is apparently little time for hobbies now.

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