You know you've arrived when Weird Al Yankovic writes a song about you. The parody singer's new ditty, in which he croons about all the stuff he bought on eBay (EBAY ), doesn't mention eBay Chief Executive Margaret C. Whitman. But more than anyone else, she can take credit for transforming eBay from a scruffy online flea market into a commercial blockbuster known the world over.
EBay started with a great idea, one of the few utterly true to the power of the Internet: Forget all the inventory and warehouses. Instead, simply create an online marketplace where people find and list their own products to sell. But it's Whitman, 47, whose savvy shepherding of that people power has transformed eBay into nothing less than a virtual, self-regulating global economy. This year, it's expected to top $20 billion in sales of everything from BMWs to industrial lathes, from the U.S. to Germany, Korea, and Brazil.
Despite her stints at such blue chips as Procter & Gamble (PG ) Walt Disney (DIS ), and Hasbro (HAS ), the unassuming CEO and fly-fishing fan embraced eBay's unique community of 30 million active users from the time she joined in early 1998. Says Whitman, a big eBay seller herself: "We simply try to make it easy and transparent, lay out a few rules, and get the heck out of the way." As the Net increasingly opens up other corporations' inner workings to customers and partners, they will be forced to follow eBay's lead.
EBay's users aren't done, either. Now they're helping Whitman chip away at friction points, from payments to shipping. Last year, for instance, after users essentially voted with their clicks, eBay bought payment processor PayPal Inc. and dumped its own lagging unit, Billpoint, speeding billing and merchandise deliveries. The ultimate goal: Make eBay as mainstream as shopping at the mall. If she can do that, Meg Whitman may deserve a song all her own.