For some, Google shares changed the course of their lives
SAN FRANCISCO - Bonnie Brown was fresh from a nasty divorce in 1999, living with her sister and uncertain of her future. On a lark, she answered an ad for an in-house masseuse at Google, then a Silicon Valley start-up with 40 employees. She was offered the part-time job, which started out at $450 a week but included a pile of Google stock options that she figured might never be worth a penny.
After five years of kneading engineers' backs, Brown retired, cashing in most of her stock options, which were worth millions of dollars. To her delight, the shares she held onto have continued to balloon in value.
"I'm happy I saved enough stock for a rainy day, and lately it's been pouring," said Brown, 52, who now lives in a 3,000-square-foot house in Nevada, gets her own massages at least once a week, and has a private Pilates instructor. She has traveled the world to oversee a charitable foundation she started with her Google wealth and has written a book, still unpublished, "Giigle: How I Got Lucky Massaging Google."
When Google's stock topped $700 a share last week, before dropping back to $664 on Friday, it was not just outside shareholders who were smiling.
According to documents filed Wednesday with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Google employees and former employees are holding options they can cash in worth about $2.1 billion. In addition, current employees are sitting on stock and unvested options, or options they cannot immediately cash in, that together have a value of about $4.1 billion.
Although no one keeps an official count of Google millionaires, it is estimated that 1,000 people each have more than $5 million worth of Google shares from stock grants and stock options.
One founder, Larry Page, has stock worth $20 billion. The other, Sergey Brin, has slightly less, $19.6 billion, according to Equilar, an executive compensation research firm. Three Google senior vice presidents - David Drummond, the chief legal officer; Shona Brown, who runs business operations; and Jonathan Rosenberg, who oversees product management - together are holding $160 million worth of Google stock and options.
"This is a very rare phenomenon, when one company so quickly becomes worth so much money," said Peter Hero, senior adviser to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, which works with individuals and corporations to support charitable organizations. "During the boom times, there were lots of companies whose employees made a lot of money fast, like Yahoo and Netscape. But the scale didn't approach Google."
Indeed, Google has seemed to exist in its own microclimate, with its shares climbing even as other technology stocks have been buffeted by investor skittishness. The stock touched an all-time high of $747.24 on Tuesday before falling more than $83 a share during the week to close at $663.97 on Friday. But even after that sell-off, the stock has risen more than 44 percent, or $203 a share, this year.
The days are long gone when people like Brown were handed thousands of Google options with the exercise price, or the predetermined price that employees would pay to buy the stock, set in pennies. Nearly half of the 16,000 employees now at Google have been there for a year or less, and their options have an average exercise price of more than $500. But those who started at the company a year ago, or even three months ago, are seeing their options soar in value.
Several Google employees interviewed for this article say they do not watch the dizzying climb of the company's shares. When it comes to awareness of the stock price, they say, Google is different from other large high-tech companies where they have worked, like Microsoft, where the day's stock price is a fixture on many people's computer screens.
At Google, the sensibility is more nuanced, they say. "It isn't considered 'Googley' to check the stock price," said an engineer, using the Google jargon for what is acceptable in the company's culture. As a result, there is a bold insistence, at least on the surface, that the stock price does not matter.
Others admit that, when gathered around the espresso machine, it is hard to avoid the topic of their sudden windfalls.
"It's very clear that people are taking nicer vacations," said one Google engineer, who asked not to be identified because it is also not Googley to talk about personal fortunes made at the company. "And one of the guys who works for me but has been there longer showed up at work in a really, really nice new car."
Google, like many other Silicon Valley companies, gives each new employee stock options, as well as a smaller number of shares of Google stock, as a recruiting incentive.
The idea of employment at a place with such a high stock price is appealing, but it also can make the company less attractive to a new hire.
Jordan Moncharmont, 21, a senior at Stanford University who was given stock options after he started working at Facebook part time, said Google's high stock price can be a disincentive to a prospective hire as it translates to a high exercise price for options. "You'd have to spend a boatload of cash to exercise your options."
Moncharmont said he did not join Facebook to get rich, though he knows his Facebook options could make him wealthy someday.
When Brown left Google, the stock price had merely doubled from its initial offering price of $85. So Brown is glad she ignored the advice of her financial advisers and held onto a cache of stock.
As the stock continues to defy gravity, Brown, whose foundation has its assets in Google stock, can be more generous with her charity. "It seems that every time I give some away, it just keeps filling up again," she said. "It's like an overflowing pot."
The wealth generated by options is giving a lot of people the freedom to leave and do whatever they like.
Ron Garret, an engineer who was Google's 104th employee, worked there for a little more than a year, leaving in 2001. When he eventually sold all his stock, he became a venture capitalist and a philanthropist. He has also become a documentary filmmaker and is currently chronicling homelessness in Santa Monica, Calif.
"The stock price rise doesn't affect me at all," he said, "except just gazing at it in wonderment."