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October 2012
Alumni Spotlight: A Bid for Innovation and Change

Devin Wenig, a former Cravath corporate associate, is the president of eBay Global Marketplaces. He talks about technology, innovation and life on the West Coast.

Devin N. Wenig

Devin N. Wenig

Columbia University

When Devin Wenig was asked to be the president of eBay Global Marketplaces, he knew it was the opportunity of a lifetime. Devin had always been fascinated with Silicon Valley’s energy and innovation, and eBay was one of its most iconic brands—as well as a Fortune 500 company. “The chance to lead it was one I couldn’t pass up,” he says.

But moving his family of four from New York to San Jose was a daunting proposition. His wife, Cindy, had a thriving career as the General Counsel of Apollo Real Estate Advisors, and his 15-year-old son, Justin, and 10-year-old daughter, Madison, had well-established school and social lives.

Fortunately, Devin’s family shares his love of adventure, and the entire household is thriving in the Bay Area. It’s not just the scenic beauty—the mountains, the ocean, the wine country—it’s also the fact that they are surrounded by some of the country’s best and brightest innovators, academics and technology leaders. “Most places force you to make the tradeoff between being a cosmopolitan center or a great place to live,” he says. “This is one of those very unique places that gets the mix right. People are serious about the outdoors and being healthy, but this is also a hard-driving business center. That part has been a lot of fun.”

And if it’s been a disruption, well, that’s what the West Coast is all about. After all, this is the home not just of eBay, but also Apple, Google, Amazon and Netflix—companies that have fundamentally altered their respective industries. “That is the spirit that pervades things out here,” says Devin, who runs the eBay portion of eBay Inc. (The corporation also owns PayPal.)

At 15, eBay is one of Silicon Valley’s elder statesmen, but it still has the fast-moving feel of a start-up. “It’s amazing how many of the people driving core parts of the innovation are under 30 years old,” says Devin, 46. “It has been a ton of fun to work with 25- and 26-year-olds who are thinking really big about how to challenge and reinvent existing businesses and industries.”

But the company’s leading-edge culture still remains somewhat at odds with its popular image. Most people think of eBay as an online flea market, a place to sell old movie posters, vintage tableware and whatever else they find in their attics. In fact, only about 25% of the company’s sales are from auctions. The majority of the site’s business comes from major retailers like Best Buy and Toys “R” Us, which sell their products on the site. The company also is the world’s leading seller of goods via online and mobile devices, surpassing even Amazon.

Devin came to eBay from Thomson Reuters, where he worked for 18 years in a number of roles, including Chief Operating Officer and, ultimately, Chief Executive Officer of the Markets division. It may seem like a radical departure to move from a 150-year-old New York media company to a Silicon Valley technology firm, but Devin says the leap wasn’t as big as one might expect. “Both of the businesses are technology-platform businesses—eBay is a massive global technology platform that enables an e-commerce experience; Reuters is a massive global platform that enables people to get news and financial data from around the world,” he says. “The platforms themselves are the heartbeat of the company.”

Prior to his tenure at Reuters, Devin was a corporate associate at Cravath—an experience he wouldn’t trade for the world, but not for the usual reasons. After Devin began working at the Firm, he very quickly realized he didn’t want to be a lawyer. He also had no idea where his experience handling global M&A transactions would take him. “If you had said to me when I was a second-year associate sitting in Worldwide Plaza that I’d one day be president of eBay, that would have been somewhere behind being a fireman or being an astronaut or playing first base for the Mets,” he says.

Although Devin wasn’t exactly sure where his career was going, he knew his experience at Cravath was invaluable. It wasn’t just the caliber or intensity of the work—though that was part of it—it was also the insider’s view of business it afforded him, in industries that ranged from retail to pharmaceuticals to entertainment. “M&A is great because it gets you into the guts of the business,” he says. At the same time, he was able to see how entire systems operated. “Lawyers get a very interesting vantage. They get a helicopter view. They get to see both sides, the financial side and the business side,” he says.

That helicopter perspective is particularly important when working for a worldwide business like eBay—and at a time when the e-commerce space continues to become more global and technology keeps changing the game. He notes that mobile devices are radically altering the way goods are bought and sold. This year, consumers will make $10 billion in purchases from eBay on their phones. And they’re not just buying books and theater tickets—they’re buying cars, 8,000 a week on eBay. “A few years ago, people were really careful about buying something small on a computer. Now, they wouldn’t think twice about buying an automobile on the phone,” says Devin.

Online shopping has also gone from being a strictly utilitarian transaction—find the cheapest price, point and click—to a much more immersive experience. With sites like Facebook and Pinterest, Devin notes that social media and e-commerce are quickly merging. “People are expressing themselves through the brands they love. E-commerce is becoming more curated, inspired and fun,” he says.

All this significantly influences the legal landscape in which the industry operates, as issues like privacy, imputed liability and intellectual property law become even more complicated. When and how can you use customer data? What are the liability issues around goods sold by other parties? Where does a company like PayPal fit into the financial regulatory landscape?

It’s a vast and complicated ecosystem, but Devin says he wouldn’t have it any other way. “It’s a really exciting time,” he says. “Out here, there is a lot of growth, a lot of hiring and a lot of innovation. At this stage of my career—and I’ve been at this for a long time—it feels like a new start.”