Little more than a day after Dara Khosrowshahi decided to accept the Uber board’s offer to become the embattled ride-share company’s new CEO – after the company’s top two candidates dropped out of the running - he received a welcome-aboard present that was just so…Uber.
Namely, a report in the Wall Street Journal claiming that the DOJ is in the “preliminary stages” of an investigation into whether Uber executives violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act by allegedly paying bribes to government officials. Based on what it finds, the Justice Department may or may not decide to open a full-fledged FCPA investigation into Uber.
According to WSJ, it’s unclear whether US authorities are focused on one country or examining activities in multiple countries where the company operates. But if we had to guess, we’d bet that any alleged wrongdoing probably happened in China, where bribery and corruption proliferate. Uber’s foray into the world’s No. 2 economy famously ended in defeat one year ago when it sold its China division to local rival Didi Chuxing in exchange for a stake in the combined company.
In his first public remarks since accepting the job, Khosowshahi described the chance to run the ride-hailing startup as a “once in a lifetime opportunity.” But like they say: be careful what you wish for. Because, as Khosrowshahi absorbs his first blows in the unceasing media assault on Uber, he’s probably thinking to himself that he didn’t realize just how good he had it at Expedia – where his 12-year tenure was unblemished by scandal.
To add another layer of irony: He hasn’t even left yet.
“Even before he takes the job as Uber Technologies Inc.’s new chief executive, fresh challenges confront Expedia Inc. CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, with news of a federal bribery probe into Uber and public disagreement over how the board’s decision to hire him unfolded.
News of the probe, reported by The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, came after Mr. Khosrowshahi made his first public comments since being voted in as CEO by Uber directors on Sunday. He would succeed Travis Kalanick, the Uber co-founder who was pressured to resign in June following a series of scandals and amid infighting on the board. Mr. Khosrowshahi was selected over two more seasoned executives in Jeff Immelt, chairman of General Electric Co. and Meg Whitman, chief of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co.”
Khosrowshahi played up his relationship with former CEO and Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick, telling WSJ that “there’s mutual respect” between the two tech titans. We hope, for Khosrowshahi’s sake, that he’s being polite, not naïve. Because anybody who’s been following the Uber saga probably suspects that Kalanick would drive a knife into his successor’s back in a heartbeat if it would hasten his return as CEO.
“Speaking with the Journal at Expedia’s headquarters Tuesday morning, Mr. Khosrowshahi said his contract with Uber still needs to be finalized, but indicated he would take the job. He said Mr. Kalanick would remain involved with Uber and described as “budding” his relationship with the ex-CEO. “I think there’s mutual respect there,” he said.
‘He’s the founder of the company, he’s an incredible visionary, so he will be involved with the company going forward,’ Mr. Khosrowshahi said. ‘Exactly how, exactly when, is something that’s really up to Travis and the board.’"
When asked about the controversy surrounding his selection as CEO – he was chosen after two more-experienced candidates, HP Enterprise’s Meg Whitman and recently retired former GE CEO Jeff Immelt, publicly withdrew their candidacies - Khosrowshahi defended his selection.
“Mr. Khosrowshahi declined to discuss the controversy around the CEO search, saying ‘there has been too much obsession with the process.’
Despite the drama at Uber, Mr. Khosrowshahi said the offer to run it was too good to pass up. ‘It took a couple of pokes to get me interested,’ he said, ‘but the opportunity at Uber is once in a lifetime.’”
He added that his “first priority” at Uber would be focusing on the company’s employees, who’ve been without a leader for nine weeks.
“That part of the business maybe hasn’t been focused on as much,” he said, “and that comes first for me.”
But as much as Khosrowshahi would like to shoot the breeze by the water cooler, we imagine he’ll soon be busy putting out fires as the federal government is in the middle of multiple investigations into the company’s alleged misdeeds.
As WSJ notes, Uber faces growing pressure from U.S. authorities. In addition to the preliminary bribery probe, the Justice Department is separately pursuing a criminal investigation into “Greyball,” a software tool employees used to evade law-enforcement officials. And earlier this month, Uber settled Federal Trade Commission charges that it didn’t offer sufficient privacy protections for its users. The company didn’t admit nor deny the allegations as part of the settlement.
Good luck with the new job, Dara. You’re going to need it.