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Monday, Jul 4, 2022

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Francis Lobo wasn’t looking for a new job when he was contacted last year by a recruiter pitching a C-level opening at United Online, the Woodland Hills Internet service provider and social-media site operator. Lobo, 38, was happy in New York working for AOL Inc. where he had spent more than nine years and rose to the position of president of AOL Services, managing AOL.com, AOL Mail, AOL Search and MapQuest. But the recruiter’s offer of the chief executive position at United Online piqued Lobo’s curiosity. “One discussion lead to another and I ended up accepting,” he said. Lobo comes to United Online at an interesting time in the company’s history. He replaces long-time chief executive Mark Goldston, who left in November following the spinoff of the FTD Cos. Inc. floral and gifts business. That only left the legacy dial-up Internet service providers NetZero and Juno, social media sites Classmates.com, and StayFriends. com in Europe, and e-commerce loyalty program MyPoints. Lobo grew up in Bangalore, India, one of six children to a father who operated his own business and mother who worked for an adoption agency. He came to the United State in the late 1990s to earn an MBA and returned to India in 2001,where he first started working for AOL. Lobo spoke to the Business Journal from his corner office where he discussed his plans for United Online, what consumers look for from social media and his favorite places to travel. Question: Why would anyone want to head up United Online. Isn’t this the age of lightning-fast broadband? Answer: The situation we are in is a difficult situation but one of great opportunity. It is difficult because we have businesses that are declining and dropping with the key metrics. The upside is most people have counted us out. We have a ton of strengths but the market is missing who we are. I didn’t come here to stabilize a decline. I came here to work with the team and turn United Online back into a really great company. How are you doing that? We are doing three things in parallel. We work at keeping the trains running and making sure the shareholders don’t suffer at all. We work at the day-to-day business. The second thing we do is look at evolution. How do our products need to evolve, where do we need to innovate more, what our new marketing channels will be for the existing businesses? The third aspect that we are spending a lot of time on is revolution; what is going to be that new golden nugget that is going to help us become a very successful business again? We are formulating our plan on how to execute that. What are the company’s strengths? The right people, the right talent, the right energy, right skill sets. That I think is United Online’s biggest strength. Even though we have a few gaps in skill sets we have a tremendous treasure trove of good talent and good people here that we can leverage with any business that we get into. We (also) have a tremendous amount of data. We have just over 100 million registered members in our Classmates business globally. That is a lot of information. We have phenomenal marketing chops, and we’ve got one of the best in the industry email marketing programs. What are the weaknesses? Legacy businesses that need to be turned around. How much of a future does dial-up service have? That business has done a wonderful job of pivoting. In our Q4 earnings, the segment grew after eight years. On the one hand you have a dial-up business but that team was able to take the skills and knowledge and strengths that they had into building a wireless-access business. It is fairly healthy and doing well. That is a perfect example of taking that asset of people and doing something with it. But your broadband service is slower 3G, isn’t it? Yes. We are getting into 4G as well later this year. The Sprint deal we recently signed is primarily 3G right now. In your first earnings call you mentioned that you’ve always had a goal of becoming a chief executive. Why is that? I have an entrepreneurial spirit where I want to do things a certain way and I found out working for someone else did not work too well. I wanted to be able to manage something end-to-end as much as possible. I wasn’t learning much in my last role at AOL. I can tell you being CEO of United Online I’ve learned more in the last six months about managing a business, about people issues, about SEC compliance, about a ton of things. How did you get this job? I heard from a recruiter who called me. Out of curiosity I did look into it because I did want to be a CEO of a public company. It moved on from there. What’s been the biggest challenge? I would say, no man or woman can succeed on their own. It has been my biggest strength and challenge of coming here is people. You need people 100 percent behind you, with you, alongside you. One of the first things that happened after coming here is I lost the CFO, general counsel, and head of HR; the three most important people in running a public company. That was difficult. And how did that situation get resolved? The positive of it is it allowed so many people to step up. I got to meet everybody else in the company that much faster. What have been doing to change the corporate culture? The number one change I want to make here is I want everybody to believe we are going to win again. I have to lead by example. We’ve got to have a collective goal. We will define that goal in the next month or two and who we want to be as a company. What about changes in the day-to-day operations? We are moving our offices to a lot smaller space with open offices, more interaction. We are bringing in video-conferencing and audio-conferencing facilities. One of the first things I did was get rid of the CEO and all executive reserve parking. Whoever comes first can park in whatever spot they want. We have whiteboards all over the office. It is more relaxed and open. You are going to stay in the West Valley? Yes, it is very close by. I cannot tell you where exactly because we have not signed the contract. It is one-third the space. We are building a space for the team; a lot more glass and a lot less walls – basically an Internet company. What from your experience at AOL do you bring? I got to work with fantastic leaders. I learned if you deliver results growth is there for you. I joined AOL in India in 2004 at very close to an entry level position and when I left I was one of very few presidents in the company. I learned a lot from CEO Tim Armstrong whom I observed closely. I got to look at stuff from both perspectives as an employee and as the person taking the big-picture view. You grew up in India and worked there in several businesses. Is there a way of doing business in India that is unique to that country and different from the U.S.? India is very hierarchal. In the United State you get that in some places but it’s more open. What I like the most about the U.S. is if you want to do something and you’re willing to put in the time and effort and you are good at it, you will succeed. The opportunity here is like nowhere else in the world that I’ve seen. You still have family in India? Yes, my parents are in India, one brother is in India. Do you go back for visits? I always go back. Family comes first. I try to go back once a year for at least a week, two weeks. The last few years have been tougher. The nice thing about both AOL and United Online is I manage large teams in India. I recently went to India to meet the United Online team there. We have 180 people, and managed to go home for a weekend. How did your parents influence you? My father started a poultry business, employed thousands of people and eventually lost that business because he was an honest man. Over those years he went through a lot of challenges but always slept well at night. At the same time he built one of the largest micro-lending organizations, an MBA university, he created educational programs for jails; he did so much good work. My mom is similar to my dad in many ways. She has dedicated her life to social work. Until recently she was with CARA, the Central Adoption Resource Agency, where all adoption policies and procedures went through. They always encouraged us and gave us the best support in the world. You played sports – basketball, cricket, table tennis – when growing up in India. Does that carry over to the workplace? I am a very competitive person and I want to be as good as I can be. But I’m also good at dividing the hours in the day and realizing you can’t be good at everything. Right now my focus is United Online. What are consumers looking for from social media? It is about staying in touch. It is as simple as that. At United Online, it is not just social media, it is how we can use our products to make people’s lives betters. Are you thinking of the next big thing in social media technology? There is no way I am trying to keep up with Facebook and Twitter. Anybody who wants to be a follower by choice is doomed to being a follower. Who knows what will be the next biggest thing after Facebook? There isn’t one. When talking with my team I talked about the Internet map of the world. When you look at all the brands on the Internet, you have Google in search, Facebook in social networks, Open Table for restaurant reservations, Uber reinventing the town car and taxi industry. I want to find our place on that map. You listed traveling as a favorite hobby. Where are some favorite places you’ve visited? I love to travel. I’ve been to more countries than my age. That is how I know I am keeping pace. For my honeymoon with my wife we went to a couple of small islands in the Philippines that were magnificent. I loved Brazil, Costa Rica. My trip to Italy with my wife was spectacular. How about in the U.S.? Now here is a good one. My favorite place in the U.S., and I’ve been there three times, is Pebble Beach. That whole area, Carmel, Monterey, is just beautiful. I love the energy of New York. When you travel, can you leave the office and work behind? Yes, for 22 hours in the day. Whenever I have traveled I can easily switch my brain off provided I know everything is okay. I do spend an hour checking my email, calling key people and if it’s good I can switch off for the rest of the day. What tops your list for places you have not visited? I haven’t been to Russia, I haven’t been to Japan, and I haven’t been to Prague. They will all come in time. Francis Lobo Position: Chief Executive Company: United Online Inc., Woodland Hills Born: Bangalore, India, 1975 Education: Bachelors of Commerce, St. Joseph’s College at Bangalore University; MBA, Loyola University, Chicago Career Turning Point: “Continuous hard work.” Most Influential Persons: “My father and mother, as they are the two most accomplished people I know.” Personal: Married to Roopa Mathew. Couple has infant daughter Samara. Interests: Traveling with family, golf

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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