By Jack Nicas
Google-parent Alphabet Inc. said Eric Schmidt will step down from his post as executive chairman in January, an unexpected retreat by the tech giant's most high-profile ambassador.
Mr. Schmidt, who joined Google in 2001 as chief executive and served in that position until 2011, will transition to a role as technical adviser and will continue to serve on Alphabet's board, the company said in a statement Thursday. Alphabet said his replacement will likely be a nonexecutive chairman.
Google said little about the reason for the change, and declined to make Mr. Schmidt, 62 years old, available for an interview. In the statement, he said that co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Google CEO Sundar Pichai "and I all believe that the time is right in Alphabet's evolution for this transition."
The Google co-founders and Mr. Schmidt have been discussing his transition for about a year, according to a person close to the company.
Mr. Schmidt's retreat signals a generational shift at the tech giant, which he helped shape into one of the world's most valuable and influential companies. Messrs. Page and Brin had brought Mr. Schmidt on board when Google was still a scrappy search engine, and the older executive gave Google structure and discipline.
During his decade as CEO, Google expanded well beyond search into areas such as maps, email, online video and smartphones. Those products -- Google Maps, Gmail, YouTube and Android -- each now have more than a billion users.
Mr. Schmidt's step down comes as the company -- now a colossus valued at $743 billion -- has achieved steady financial performance in recent years. Since Google reorganized to become Alphabet in 2015 -- a move designed to make the different businesses more independent -- he has become more of an ambassador for the company, traveling the world to speak at events and meet with world leaders.
He has deep political ties, but his influence in Washington was weakened by the election of President Donald Trump.
Mr. Schmidt said he plans to spend more time "on science and technology issues, and philanthropy."
In 2001, Messrs. Page and Brin plucked Mr. Schmidt from the software firm he headed, Novell Inc. He was a former executive at Sun Microsystems. The two young Google founders told reporters at the time they wanted to bring in some "adult supervision." (The men later confirmed the interview process included a trip to Burning Man, the arts festival in the Nevada desert.)
When Mr. Page replaced him as CEO in 2011, Mr. Schmidt tweeted: "Day-to-day adult supervision no longer needed!"
While leading Google, Mr. Schmidt was often on the front lines defending the company of charges that it was too powerful or too invasive. His public comments though sometimes fueled critics.
In 2009, when CNBC asked him if users should be treating Google as a "trusted friend," he responded, "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place." Internet-privacy advocates like the Electronic Frontier Foundation criticized that stance, and some websites noted his hypocrisy, given that Google effectively blacklisted the tech site CNET after it published Mr. Schmidt's personal information -- found in Google searches -- in a story about internet privacy.
Mr. Schmidt's personal life is notorious among Google staff, current and former employees say. Long married to his wife, Wendy, with whom he founded the Schmidt Family Foundation, he has had romantic relationships with other women and is often seen with other women in public, including at-work events and at Google offices, according to people familiar with the matter. Mr. Schmidt in 2016 brought a girlfriend, an ex-girlfriend and a senior Alphabet executive, along with other friends, on his private jet on a flight from Reno, Nev., to New York after the Burning Man festival, one of the people said.
In a 2012 interview with the New York Times, Mr. Schmidt declined to comment on reports of his affairs, calling them "rumors." Mrs. Schmidt said in the same article that she lives "fairly independently" in Nantucket, Mass.
His political ties, once a strength for the company, have more recently become somewhat of a liability. He was close to the Obama administration, and he aided Hillary Clinton's campaign in its early stages. He was even spotted wearing a staff badge at Mrs. Clinton's election-night party. But when President Donald Trump was preparing to host tech executives before his inauguration, he asked advisers if Mr. Schmidt was "the guy that tried to help Hillary win."
Michael T. Jones, a former Google executive and friend of Mr. Schmidt, said his job as executive chairman largely consisted of three roles: "He runs the board, and he advises Larry & Sergey like an uncle ... and he's also been Google's head of state," meeting with world leaders. Mr. Jones said Mr. Schmidt is likely ready for a new challenge. "He's an operational guy, not an advice guy," he said. "He's more than happy to run something rather than tell someone else how to run it."
--Yoree Koh contributed to this article.
Write to Jack Nicas at [email protected]