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USWeb's New Age, with a New CEO

SAN FRANCISCO -- Like the truth, Joe Firmage is out there.

Particularly, Firmage is out of the top slot at




The Internet consulting company announced yesterday that it was nudging Firmage from the CEO post to make room for a much more seasoned executive, Robert Shaw, who had recently been in charge of


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global consulting services. Firmage will become chief strategist, a title more common in investment banks and political campaigns than in tech companies.

The move comes just as USWeb shareholders are slated to vote on a merger with Internet marketer

CKS Group


on Dec. 1 into a company that will be called

Reinvent Communications

. (Also on Thursday, USWeb and CKS filed with the

Securities and Exchange Commission

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a proxy detailing the proposed merger, including the new titles for Shaw and Firmage.)

During the past year, some investors had questioned Firmage's strategy of buying 34 companies largely paid for with USWeb's stock, in addition to the company's accounting methods for the deals. More recently, news reports had tweaked Firmage for a book he's writing on how to handle chaos in the universe, adding to his image as a new-age loose cannon.

When the merger was announced Sept. 2, Firmage was slated to be CEO of Reinvent and CKS head Mark Kvamme was to be chairman of its board. Now Shaw is on deck to be Reinvent's CEO, while Firmage will hold onto the title of chief strategist. Kvamme's role as chairman will stay intact.

The Firmage news cheered Wall Street, triggering double-digit gains not only for USWeb but for CKS. USWeb rose 14% to 19 1/4 and CKS rose 13% to 25 1/8.

"Joe's real strengths lie in the strategy and vision," says Ullas Naik, vice president at

First Albany

, which has done underwriting for USWeb. "That is his forte. But from a day-to-day standpoint, they needed to get a rock star and the guy from Oracle is a rock star." Naik rates the stock a buy.

Other analysts agree. "I'm not sure he's the best guy for the day-to-day operations, but he certainly did a good job getting the company to this point," says Ryan Crane, a senior equity analyst for

AIM Funds

. As USWeb merges with CKS, "it will be a much bigger company, and they needed to bring in someone with more experience."

It's not uncommon for fast-growing tech companies to bring in a seasoned exec after they've had initial success as a startup. When



hired Jim Barksdale, Marc Andreessen moved over to a more visionary role. And



named Thomas R. Evans, publisher of

U.S. News & World Report

and other magazines, as its chief executive prior to the company's IPO this year.

Often, though, such transitions occur amid signs of trouble.


exec David Dorman came on board


after the software company failed to deliver on its tremendous promise under Chris Hassett. In USWeb's case, one hedge fund manager who until recently held a short position in USWeb said Firmage's leadership was starting to jeopardize the merger with CKS.

But an analyst disputed the notion that Firmage's performance was cause for the personnel move. "This is not an issue of what

Firmage's strengths and weaknesses are," says

Gerard Klauer Mattison

analyst Arthur Newman, who rates USWeb a buy. "They're bringing in a 'been there, done that' kind of guy." GKM has no underwriting relationship with USWB.

Firmage's strong suit has been charting an ambitious course and moving quickly to reach it. But such ambition has gone hand in hand with an unorthodox style, something that is apparent in the site marketing Firmage's forthcoming book.

Firmage has been largely silent on the book beyond saying it's his version of

Bill Gates'

The Road Ahead

. But the site set up to tout the book, called

, is a doozy. Amid a

Star Wars

-like background, the text reads, "At this place, the religion of our past and the science of our future will come together, as one vision of the Truth."

Firmage reportedly removed his own and his company's name from the site after investors and board members started checking it out. Such a new-age site with ties to a Web-design company stirs up an uneasy allusion to last year's headlines. As the hedge fund manager put it, "Doesn't it remind you of

Heaven's Gate


USWeb didn't return calls for this story.