Beleaguered Groupon CEO says would fire himself if needed

NEW YORK Wed Nov 28, 2012 8:19pm GMT

Groupon Chief Executive Andrew Mason poses with his newly married wife, pop musician Jenny Gillespie, outside the Nasdaq Market following his company's IPO in New York November 4, 2011. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Groupon Chief Executive Andrew Mason poses with his newly married wife, pop musician Jenny Gillespie, outside the Nasdaq Market following his company's IPO in New York November 4, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Brendan McDermid

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Groupon Inc (GRPN.O) Chief Executive Andrew Mason, under fire for a plunging share price and tapering growth, declared on Wednesday he would fire himself if he ever thought he was the wrong man for the job.

Mason, whose performance at the helm will come under scrutiny from his board of directors during a regular board meeting Thursday, said it would be "weird" if they did not. But he said he believed the board was comfortable with his strategy.

Shares in the company, once touted as innovating local business advertising through the marketing of Internet discounts on everything from spa treatments to dining, surged 8 percent to $4.25 in the afternoon.

"It would be more noteworthy if the board wasn't discussing whether I'm the right guy for the job," Mason said in an interview from a Business Insider conference in New York. "If I ever thought I wasn't the right guy for the job, I'd be the first person to fire myself."

"As the founder and creator of Groupon, as a large shareholder..., I care far more about the success of the business than I do about my role as CEO," he said.

Groupon has shed four-fifths of its value since its public trading debut as an investor favorite during last year's consumer dotcom IPO boom, and Mason himself has presided over a string of high-profile executive departures.

Wall Street has grown uneasy about the viability of its business as fever for daily deals has cooled among consumers and merchants, hurting its growth rate.

In the interview broadcast from the conference, the outspoken and sometimes-zany co-founder argued his company was going through a period of volatility but believed it was on the right path. Groupon's efforts to reduce its reliance on plain vanilla deals include bumping up its "Goods" retail business, increasing the selection of "persistent" or long-running deals, and allowing users to search for such deals on demand.

Shares in Groupon spiked after the interview and were up 8 percent at $4.26, still way below its $20 market debut price.

Groupon and rivals in the daily deals business, like Amazon.com-backed (AMZN.O) LivingSocial, were supposed to change the very nature of small-business advertising. Instead, they were forced to revamp their business models as evidence mounts that their strategy was flawed.

This month, Groupon reported another quarter of disappointing earnings, and its stock went as low as $2.60 on November 12.

Europe has been a particular problem for Groupon, partly because the sovereign debt crisis has sapped demand for higher-priced deals. Groupon was also offering steeper discounts, turning off some European merchants.

International revenue, which includes Europe, grew just 3 percent to $277 million in the third quarter, while North American revenue surged 80 percent to $292 million.

Adding to its difficulties, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is looking into Groupon's accounting and disclosures, areas that raised questions among some analysts during its IPO.

But Mason shrugged off speculation that the company might run into a cash crunch and go bankrupt. The company has said it had $1.2 billion in cash and equivalents with no long-term debt.

"There was a period when those stories started that I'd go to my CFO ... and say: 'how would that happen, walk me through what would be required for us to actually go bankrupt'," Mason said. "And it's like an end of days, apocalyptic scenario. The business would have to go into severe negative growth for something like this. The scenario is so absurd there's no evidence for it."

(Reporting By Liana Baker; Editing by David Gregorio, Tim Dobbyn and Marguerita Choy)