CEO and president Meg Whitman bet that listening to customers could turn eBay's electronic white elephant sale into a Web powerhouse. Now her company is profiting - and growing - even as the economy slumps.
Other CEOs might wish they had Meg Whitman's job. Until Amazon reported its pro forma profit in early 2002, Whitman's eBay was the sole shining star in the e-commerce universe. Even in the midst of the worldwide economic downturn, the online auction house continued to grow, to revenues of $749 million in 2001 from $431 million in 2000.

And there's no sign of a stoppage. Analysts expect eBay to reach $250 million in profits on $1 billion in sales this year, and Whitman is aiming for $3 billion in revenue by 2005.

Not bad for a company that posted $4.5 million in sales in 1998, the year Whitman was hired. Getting the company to this point has been about far more than a smart business model or that much-vaunted "first-mover advantage."

That kind of growth takes savvy management and plain old hard work, and Whitman learned real-world company-building discipline right out of the gate. Fresh from Harvard Business School in 1979, she joined Procter & Gamble, then climbed the corporate ladder with stints at consulting firm Bain & Company, Disney, Stride Rite, Florists Transworld Delivery (better known as FTD), and Hasbro.

While some of eBay's practices would be difficult to adapt to other businesses, any company that relies on strong customer relationships could take a page from eBay's Web site. The company has perfected the art of listening to customers - and then listening some more. American Way chatted with Whitman about building those relationships, and other happenings behind the scenes at eBay.

american way: A couple of years ago eBay's servers went down fairly regularly, but now they seem pretty stable. How do you prevent outages from happening in the future, given eBay's growth?