New chief challenged to steady the wheel at Uber

San Francisco (AFP) –


Uber appeared on Monday to have found a new hand to steady the wheel at the smartphone-summoned ride service, which has skidded from one controversy to another.

Uber has yet to confirm reports that Dara Khosrowshahi to replace ousted Travis Kalanick as chief at the San Francisco-based startup.

However, Expedia board chairman Barry Diller appeared to confirm the choice in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

"As you probably know by now, Dara Khosrowshahi has been asked to lead Uber," read a copy of a memo from Expedia board chairman Barry Diller to Expedia employees included in an SEC filing.

"Nothing has been yet finalized, but having extensively discussed this with Dara I believe it is his intention to accept."

Uber and Expedia did not respond to AFP requests for comment.

- Rough road -

Khosrowshahi emerged as the leader among three finalists for the job during company board meetings over the weekend, The New York Times reported on Sunday, citing two people familiar with the decision.

Whoever takes charge at Uber will face challenges including conflicts with regulators and taxi operators; a cut-throat company culture, and board members feuding with investors over Kalanick.

Kalanick was the driving force behind Uber, taking a spur-of-moment idea and turning it into the world's most valuable venture-funded tech startup.

But his brash personality and freewheeling management style made him a liability as well as an asset to the global ridesharing giant, and in June he stepped down as chief executive.

Kalanick, who turned 41 this month, frequently recounts how the idea behind Uber was born, when he and a colleague were attending a technology conference in Paris in 2008 and failed to find a taxi on a cold night.

He dreamt up the "magical" idea of pushing a button to hail a ride, the story goes, and used that to create a company that disrupted an industry while ruffling the feathers of both regulators and established taxi operators.

Uber now operates in hundreds of cities and more than 80 countries.

But the hard-charging style that helped Uber succeed also made Kalanick a target for critics.

He has borne responsibility for allegations of nasty workplace tactics and covert use of law enforcement-evading software.

Dents to Uber's image include a visit by executives to a South Korean escort-karaoke bar, an attempt to dig up dirt on journalists covering the company, and the mishandling of medical records from a woman raped in India after hailing an Uber ride.

- Finances humming -

Good news for a new Uber chief will be that the company's financial engine appears to be purring despite its dented image.

Earnings figures confirmed by AFP showed that adjusted net revenue was $1.75 billion in the second quarter, more than doubling from about $800 million in the same period in 2016.

Gross bookings at the leading smartphone-summoned ride service doubled to $8.7 billion in the recently ended second quarter as the number of trips climbed 150 percent from a year earlier.

The company's adjusted net loss fell nearly 14 percent to $645 million from the same quarter last year, Uber confirmed.

Meanwhile, Uber drivers have earned $50 million in tips since a gratuity option was added to the ride-sharing application in June.

Uber has been working to improve its relationships with drivers and riders.

Uber has also been investing in autonomous driving technology, and has provoked a lawsuit from the former Google car unit now called Waymo that accused Uber of stealing trade secrets.

- Boardroom tumult -

Some mutual funds have reportedly marked down their stakes in Uber in a sign that months of scandal were taking a toll on the private company's value of some $68 billion.

Kalanick is asking for the dismissal of an investor lawsuit against him, calling it part of a personal attack aimed at sidelining him.

The Benchmark lawsuit filed in a Delaware court accused Kalanick of fraud, breach of contract and of plotting to manipulate the board of directors to allow him to return as CEO following his resignation in June.

But in a legal filing, Kalanick claimed that Benchmark "began secretly planning an effort to oust him" and "executed its plan at the most shameful of times" following the death of his mother in a May accident.

Kalanick argued that the lawsuit should be dismissed and that the dispute should be settled in arbitration.

Benchmark has asked the court to bar Kalanick from tinkering with the Uber board in any way, arguing that the former CEO was trying to pack the board with loyalists to clear the way for his return.