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Beleaguered Groupon CEO says will fire himself if needed

Groupon Chief Executive Andrew Mason smiles outside the Nasdaq Market following his company's IPO in New York November 4, 2011. REUTERS/Bren
Groupon Chief Executive Andrew Mason smiles outside the Nasdaq Market following his company's IPO in New York November 4, 2011. REUTERS/Bren

By Liana B. Baker

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Groupon Inc Chief Executive Andrew Mason, under fire for a plunging share price and tapering growth, declared on Wednesday he would fire himself if he ever thought he was the wrong man for the job.

Mason, whose performance at the helm will come under scrutiny from company directors during a regular board meeting Thursday, said it would be "weird" if they did not. But he said he believed the board was comfortable with his strategy.

"It would be more noteworthy if the board wasn't discussing whether I'm the right guy for the job," Mason said. "If I ever thought I wasn't the right guy for the job, I'd be the first person to fire myself."

"As the founder and creator of Groupon, as a large shareholder ..., I care far more about the success of the business than I do about my role as CEO," he said.

Shares of the company - once touted for innovating local business advertising through the marketing of Internet discounts on everything from spa treatments to dining - surged 11.6 percent to close at a one-month high of $4.42.

That's still a far cry from its $20 debut. But analysts say Mason's upfront comments, broadcast from an interview conducted at Business Insider's Ignite conference in New York, scored points with investors concerned about the business and CEO credentials Of the Northwestern University music graduate.

In the interview, the outspoken and sometimes-zany co-founder argued his company was going through a period of volatility but believed it was on the right path. Groupon's efforts to reduce its reliance on plain vanilla deals include bumping up its "Goods" retail business, increasing the selection of "persistent" or long-running deals, and allowing users to search for such deals on demand, he said.

Mason added, however, that the board was doing its job in scrutinizing his performance and asking tough questions of him, given the 80 percent decline in the stock before Wednesday's rally.

He was "showing the desire to make the changes necessary," said Arvind Bhatia, an analyst at Sterne Agee. "It spoke volumes to his character that he was there, despite the fact that the board's going to discuss firing him the next day."

"He came across as very genuine and someone who cares about the company."

GOING SOUTH

Groupon has lost four-fifths of its value since its public trading debut as an investor favorite during last year's consumer dotcom IPO boom, and Mason himself has presided over a string of high-profile executive departures.

Wall Street has grown uneasy about the viability of its business as fever for daily deals has cooled among consumers and merchants, hurting Groupon's growth rate.

Groupon and rivals in the daily deals business, like Amazon.com-backed LivingSocial, were supposed to change the very nature of small-business advertising. Instead, they have been forced to revamp their business models as evidence mounts that their strategy was flawed.

This month, Groupon reported another quarter of disappointing earnings, and its stock went as low as $2.60 on November 12.

Europe has been a particular problem for Groupon, partly because the sovereign debt crisis has sapped demand for higher-priced deals. Groupon was also offering steeper discounts, turning off some European merchants.

International revenue, which includes Europe, grew just 3 percent to $277 million in the third quarter, while North American revenue surged 80 percent to $292 million.

Adding to its difficulties, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is looking into Groupon's accounting and disclosures, areas that raised questions among some analysts during its IPO.

Mason shrugged off speculation that the company might run into a cash crunch and go bankrupt. The company has said it had $1.2 billion in cash and equivalents with no long-term debt.

"There was a period when those stories started that I'd go to my CFO ... and say: 'how would that happen, walk me through what would be required for us to actually go bankrupt,'" Mason said. "And it's like an end of days, apocalyptic scenario. The business would have to go into severe negative growth for something like this. The scenario is so absurd there's no evidence for it."

(Reporting By Liana Baker; Editing by David Gregorio, Tim Dobbyn, Marguerita Choy and Steve Orlofsky)

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