It’s been only a day, but the new CEO of Uber has already brought some much-needed maturity to the embattled ride-hailing company.
Dara Khosrowshahi, the CEO of Expedia, officially accepted his new job after a soap-opera-like executive search that pitted him against corporate icons Jeff Immelt of General Electric and Meg Whitman of Hewlett Packard Enterprise. Younger than both of them—he is 48 against 61 for Immelt and Whitman—Khosrowshahi is an Iranian immigrant whose family fled to the US in 1978, shortly before the Iranian Revolution deposed the US-backed Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and an Islamic republic was declared in 1979.
Khosrowshahi attended Brown, then worked at investment banking firm Allen & Co. before joining billionaire Barry Diller at IAC, the media conglomerate that acquired Expedia in 2001. A proven dealmaker who has led Expedia since 2005, he was the highest paid CEO in the US in 2015, thanks to a large Expedia stock grant. He is an outspoken critic of US president Donald Trump.
During his 12 years at Expedia, Khosrowshahi moved fast, as they say in Silicon Valley, but also he took care not to break too many things. Under his leadership, Expedia grew its global market share in the travel segment and its stock price climbed more than 500%. “We’re a company now that is operating at a very fast cadence,” Khosrowshahi told travel site Skift in 2015. “We don’t need to have homeruns in order to win. We can win with lots and lots of singles and doubles and we think that’s a good place to be.” This is a public sector executive with a tempered Silicon Valley mindset.
Uber desperately needs an adult in the room. The company has been buffeted by one scandal after another in 2017, from alleged sexual harassment to software designed to evade law enforcement, now the subject of a federal probe. Many of those scandals, like one involving the medical records of a rape victim in India, or another involving a team visit to an escort-karaoke bar in Seoul, South Korea, have implicated Uber founder and former CEO Travis Kalanick, plus a small circle of his most trusted advisors. Kalanick, known for his stubborn, hard-charging attitude, has similarly been blamed for an aggressive, toxic culture that festered for years at Uber as the company pursued growth by almost any means.
Throughout the CEO search process, Khosrowshahi, the dark horse candidate until the board reached its decision, reportedly positioned himself as a low-key, steady leader—the anti-Kalanick. Already, he has displayed tremendous humility. “I have to tell you I am scared,” Khosrowshahi wrote in a memo to Expedia employees, after accepting the Uber job. “I’ve been here at Expedia for so long that I’ve forgotten what life is like outside this place. But the times of greatest learning for me have been when I’ve been through big changes, or taken on new roles—you have to move out of your comfort zone and develop muscles that you didn’t know you had.”
At Uber, Khosrowshahi will need to bring stability and discipline to a business that in just eight years has grown to about 15,000 employees in more than 450 cities, not to mention the 2 million drivers who facilitate Uber’s services. His experience leading a global online travel company is a logical fit. “Khosrowshahi seems like a great choice, someone with both operational and financial acumen who has overseen the successful expansion of a respected major consumer internet brand,” Salil Pitroda, an early Uber investor, told Quartz. “One hopes that he will have the support of all members of the board, investors, and employees.”
Uber is a global rides platform with ambitions of becoming an all-encompassing transportation and logistics network. The company is building out UberEats and UberRush for last-mile deliveries and UberFreight for long-haul shipping. It is working on driverless cars (unless a trade secrets lawsuit brought by self-driving carmaker Waymo stops it) and dabbling in VTOL, more popularly known as flying cars. Khosrowshahi is personally invested in (and may need to divest from) a freight startup, Convoy. He has competed against incumbents like hotels as well as internet giants such as Google, even challenging Google over antitrust.
Uber has also contemplated a bigger push into the travel business, in December 2015 securing a patent for “Uber Travel,” a trip planner à la Expedia or Kayak, that would tap into airline networks, hotel listings, and shared accommodations providers like Airbnb to help people plan their trips and line up their Ubers with each travel leg. Khosrowshahi has the contacts to bring a project like that from patent to reality. He is similarly well-positioned to navigate the thorny regulatory environment of the so-called sharing economy, having previously led Expedia’s acquisition of vacation rental platform Homeaway for $3.9 billion, a deal that pushed its total listings back above those of Booking.com.
Ride-hailing is a low margin, fiercely competitive business, conditions that Khosrowshahi knows all too well. In the early 2000s, Expedia was unseated by Booking.com, a rival online travel site that let hotels set commission as low as 12%, compared to the 25% fee charged by Expedia. Priceline bought Booking.com in 2005 and proceeded to turn it into the largest hotel-booking site in the world. IAC spun out Expedia that same year, as the unit was losing market share and cutting expenses to maintain profitability. “We were attached to high margins at the time, and I think in hindsight that blinded us,” Khosrowshahi told travel news site Skift a few years ago.
“The Board and the Executive Leadership Team are confident that Dara is the best person to lead Uber into the future building world-class products, transforming cities, and adding value to the lives of drivers and riders around the world while continuously improving our culture and making Uber the best place to work,” Uber’s board said in a statement late on Aug. 29. Kalanick, in a separately issued statement, called Khosrowshahi “inspiring.”
So far, Khosrowshahi seems to be proving them right.