Hands-on executives flee for Web start-ups

The ranks of high-level business and IT executives who depart Fortune 500 companies for dot.com start-ups continues to grow more quickly than you can say "stock options."

The ranks of high-level business and IT executives who depart Fortune 500 companies for dot.com start-ups continues to grow more quickly than you can say “stock options.”

But while most observers point to initial public offering fever as the root cause, some of these defectors are leaving for a less obvious reason — the chance to play a more hands-on role in a company’s information technology strategy.

Take Mohan Gyani, who two weeks ago became president and chief financial officer of San Francisco-based PeoplePC Inc., which offers PCs, Internet access and in-home service for a monthly fee. As the former head of strategy and development at cellular communications provider Vodaphone AirTouch PLC, Gyani certainly has made his share of high-level IT-related decisions.

But at a smaller start-up, Gyani can play a more hands-on role with regard to technology decisions, such as deciding how to configure the computers the company will make available to customers or negotiating with suppliers to get the best price. “There’s not three layers of people executing these decisions,” said Gyani, who likens both past and present jobs to being an “orchestra leader.” But in a start-up, you also get to “play several instruments.”

Gyani also wanted to be a leader in making Internet access available to many first-time users. Although Gyani could have gotten involved with the Internet by joining the electronic-business division of a large company such as Vodaphone, such divisions are “always going to be a piece of the total pie,” rather than the company’s driving force, which is the case in an Internet start-up.

Jim Sherriff, who became CEO of Dallas-based consultant Stonebridge Technologies Inc. earlier this year, expresses similar thoughts about his decision to leave his job as vice president and general manager at Hewlett-Packard Co.’s worldwide consulting division to head a smaller firm. Sherriff said he enjoys being able to meet more frequently with clients, who are located mainly in the Southeast, rather than throughout the world, which was the case at HP.

Other recent executive moves include the following: Jay Perlman, the No. 2 man in the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Internet enforcement division, left Oct. 13 to become associate general counsel at online financial adviser The Motley Fool. At the end of September, Andersen Consulting CEO George Shaheen, left to become CEO of Webvan Group Inc., a San Francisco-area Web grocer, and Michael J. Jackson, formerly president and CEO of Mercedes-Benz USA Inc., became CEO of online automobile seller AutoNation Inc.

Terry Gallagher, president of executive search firm Battalia Winston International Inc. in Edison, N.J., said these experiences are typical for senior executives at big companies, for whom the “adrenaline rush peters out” as their jobs become laden with bureaucratic processes. Besides revamping their equity offerings, large companies need to create opportunities such as launching new business ventures, said Gallagher.

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