NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Eric Schmidt joined Google in 2001 to provide what amounted to adult supervision for the company's young founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. He helped take Google public in 2004 and built it into a colossus.
In 2011, after being appointed executive chairman, he became a prominent emissary for the company to Washington.
Now, Schmidt is stepping down as executive chairman of the Internet search giant's parent, Alphabet, the company said on Thursday (Dec 21). He will relinquish his role at Alphabet's next board meeting, in January.
Schmidt, 62, will continue to be a member of the company's board and become a technical adviser, Alphabet said, adding that it expects to appoint another chairman.
No reason was provided for the change. In a statement, Schmidt said that he, Page, Brin and Sundar Pichai, Google's chief executive, "believe that the time is right in Alphabet's evolution for this transition".
The shift underlines how Schmidt's influence at Alphabet has waned over time and how a new generation of leaders is firmly in charge at the giant company.
Page and Brin remain at the top of Alphabet and retain voting control, but the executives they now have working for them have evolved. More of them are younger executives who rose through the ranks, such as Pichai, or are superstar executives hired from the outside, including Ruth Porat, chief financial officer who was brought in from Morgan Stanley in 2015.
Schmidt's stepping back is expected to have little practical effect on day-to-day operations. But it is one of the most significant personnel shifts at the Internet giant since Page took over as chief executive in 2011, and especially because Schmidt has been such a willing public face of the company for so long.
Internally at Google, the inclusion of Pichai in Schmidt's statement on Thursday, alongside the names of Page and Brin, was seen as a passing of the torch and the creation of a new power triumvirate.
Page, in a statement on Thursday, alluded to the new generation at Alphabet and Google.
"I'm incredibly excited about the progress our companies are making, and about the strong leaders who are driving that innovation," he said.
For years, Schmidt served as a buffer for the company, smoothing relationships with regulators and the broader tech industry, said John Battelle, author of The Search: How Google And Its Rivals Rewrote The Rules Of Business And Transformed Our Culture.
"He did a lot of that important public-facing work on behalf of the company," he said. "At a moment when the world needs to have more conversations with Google about its growing power and influence, my question is not why is Eric stepping down. It's who is going to fill the void."
Page and Brin have largely avoided public events, with Page having a medical ailment that has made public speaking difficult and Brin focusing on the company's more experimental projects. Pichai has tended to speak mostly about products and services, instead of policy.
Through a Google spokesman, Schmidt declined to comment.
Schmidt has been marginalised over time at Alphabet through a combination of its changing leadership, the shifting political environment in the United States, and his own personal gaffes, according to people familiar with the company, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak publicly.
Since 2011, Schmidt had been a go-between for the company in Washington - some people internally referred to his role as Google's secretary of state. During President Barack Obama's administration, Schmidt, who has supported many Democratic politicians, prominently represented Google on policy matters.
He also gave money and technical assistance to Hillary Clinton's campaign team during the 2016 presidential race.
But since President Donald Trump came to office, Schmidt's standing has changed. He has been eclipsed in Washington by others at Google, including Susan Molinari, a former Republican congresswoman from New York, said some of the people familiar with the company.
Google also has new Washington staff such as Max Pappas, a longtime political operative who has a relationship with Charles and David Koch, the billionaire brothers who support conservative causes.
In the meantime, Google is under fire, along with other tech giants, as legislators seek to deal with the perceived monopolies these companies have.
In a time of heightened scrutiny on workplace behaviour and sexual harassment, Schmidt's personal life has also attracted attention. While he is married, he has brought a series of girlfriends to corporate events over the years. Although Schmidt's relationships were outside the office, the fact that they were carried out publicly and that the women attended professional events with him set the tone for other executives, several former Google executives said.
Some gaffes by Schmidt over the years have also received attention.
In a 2009 interview on CNBC, for instance, Schmidt said something about Google users' concerns about privacy that still haunts the company today: "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place."
Google has also had to tamp down reports that Schmidt sought to remove personal information, including about political donations, from the search engine, which he has denied.
In August, Schmidt thrust Google into a negative spotlight when Barry C. Lynn, a scholar at the New America Foundation, claimed that the executive had forced him out for applauding the European Union's decision to levy a record US$2.7 billion fine against the company. Google has denied the claim.
Google has donated more than US$21 million to the New America Foundation and helped make the foundation one of the most influential policy voices in progressive politics. After the incident, Schmidt lost some of the cachet he had built up in government circles, according to two people with knowledge of the incident.
Schmidt has not kept his head down. He has still been seen at some of the company's weekly Friday meetings, which are called TGIF, according to Google employees.