Some people show signs, early in life, that they’re CEO material. Maybe they get straight-As, become class presidents or start businesses as teens.
Steve Berkowitz wasn’t one of those. The Internet advertising veteran, who was recently named CEO of online real estate company Move, Inc., said he was a fairly average youngster with no grand visions of leadership.
“I kind of always thought I’d be living on Long Island where I grew up, taking the train to work in New York like my dad did.”
While discussing his 25 years in the industry — a career that’s seen him serve as CEO of Ask.com, President and COO of IDG Books, and SVP of Microsoft’s Online Services Group — Berkowitz said serendipity, taking chances and errors of judgment played major roles.
“It’s kind of funny,” he said. “You kind of end up where you end up based on the mistakes you make in life and the risks you take.”
Some might suggest Berkowitz is making a mistake by taking the helm of a real estate-related business during the worst housing market in decades. But Berkowitz said the timing is actually great.
He believes people need Move’s sites more than ever when times are tough and he thinks his new job presents an opportunity to run a business that takes advantage of the Internet’s potential to bring people together.
“It’s a really great opportunity to take this idea of the Internet as a virtual mall, in this case for real estate, and to create a good place for consumers,” said Berkowitz. “When you develop a Web site that’s a great destination and brand, it basically becomes a place where people seeking information, and people who can supply those goods and services, feel welcome.”
And while Move, whose sites include Move.com, Realtor.com, WelcomeWagon.com, Moving.com and HomeInsight.com, can’t touch Microsoft for sheer size, Berkowitz pointed out the company isn’t exactly a mom-and-pop shop. “We have over 1,000 people,” he noted. “It’s not a small place. We have a good balance sheet. We have well over $100 million in cash. And we’re EBITDA positive.”
Berkowitz was hardly a stranger to Move before accepting the CEO position and replacing retiring former CEO W. Michael Long. He has served on the company’s board of directors since June 2008.
Nevertheless, Berkowitz’s first days on the new job have been a whirlwind of travel and meetings. “Right now, for me, it’s about learning,” he said. “I know a lot about business, but I’m learning a lot now about Move and the real estate industry.”
Berkowitz said he is relying on the “basic principles” of business that he used to bring profitability to Ask.com and huge growth to IDG Books. Berkowitz oversaw IDG’s revenue grow from about $25 million to about $200 million and was at the reins when IDG went public. “You need to use your past as a way to learn and understand,” he said. “But I read a lot more real estate articles than I ever did before.”
The CEO said one of his strongest capabilities is finding ways to increase efficiency. He has a knack for spotting wasteful procedures and processes in Internet companies. “If I can find a business that has a large but inefficient value chain, I can find ways to increase the efficiency and I can find a way to make money,” he said. “When you look at every system, every value chain, the thing we often lose sight of is really what the Internet is: It’s a technology-enabled solution that makes things more efficient. It gives us the ability to find things that we couldn’t find, to meet at places we couldn’t meet before, to sell and market.”
Often, said Berkowitz, people at online companies waste energy trying to decide whether the customers are more important than the advertisers. “Advertisers just want to be where consumers are and where they are relevant to consumers,” he said. “When businesses start losing site of that in one way or another, they end up satisfying neither of their constituents and end up not being successful.”
On that note, Berkowitz said he is bullish about the future of online advertising. “I totally believe in the vehicle and it’s going to get better,” he said. “Not just search-based advertising. I believe you have to combine search and brand together.” He said search gets credit for bringing the “last click,” but consumers are influenced by online branding efforts, especially those presented in relevant contexts.
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