Until he resigned as the head of the online home goods retailer Overstock on Thursday, Patrick Byrne may have been one of the most unusual CEOs in the United States. A libertarian proponent of blockchain who built the company almost from scratch, he gained a reputation as a conspiracy theorist and for strange behavior — including referring to a foe as a “Sith Lord.”
Over the past few weeks, however, Byrne’s public conduct became even more bizarre. He said on CNN that he had been instructed by the FBI to conduct a relationship with Maria Butina, a convicted Russian agent, and issued a statement through Overstock in which he referred to “men in black” and to “political espionage against Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.” Overstock’s shares fell 40% after the Byrne’s revelations but began to climb again after he announced his resignation.
With Byrne stepping down, Overstock has called upon another longtime Overstock employee to be the CEO, at least for the interim — Jonathan Johnson, a member of the company’s board of directors who previously ran for governor of Utah.
Johnson spoke with TIME about where Overstock stands now — and whether it can move on without Byrne.
Patrick Byrne seems to have been this visionary who built Overstock into the company it is today. How do you think Overstock can go on without that dynamic person at the helm?
Anytime you lose a founder/CEO who’s been with you for two decades, I think you can expect some impact. One of the things that makes me feel comfortable with Patrick going is he wouldn’t have left if he hadn’t thought we had the right team in place. This was his choice to leave, and he thought it was the right time because it was the team we have.
Now as far as being a visionary, no question, Patrick is a visionary. But I think our team, first, shares his vision and, second, has frankly been the source of many of his ideas.
Do you think it will be possible to separate the perception of Overstock from the figure of Mr. Byrne? Will it be hard to show that Overstock is not this person?
I don’t think that will be a problem. I think, for most people — for most of our customers certainly — Overstock is a website and store where they find great home goods at great prices. And a company that’s easy to deal with quick delivery and easy returns. That’s not tied to one person, that’s tied to the execution of the entire company.
Byrne didn’t leave under ordinary circumstances. He released a letter that I think a lot of people would see as strange and confusing, and he’s been connected to a woman associated with the Russian government. Overstock’s stocks have also slipped recently. Do you think that’s going to create the perception that Overstock is volatile?
The first thing that I will say about his departure — this was Patrick’s decision. Only his decision. Factors that went into it were included. He worked for 20 years as a founder-CEO. That’s an exhausting role, and Patrick has talked many times with the board about when he would go. So was what was going on with his role with the government a factor? I think so. I think everyone has to admit that. But I don’t think it was the precipitating factor. He had a good team in place, he’d been there a long time, and it was time to go.
People know who Patrick Byrne is. He’s candid, he’s frank, and he’s unconventional. That’s been a hallmark of Patrick and of Overstock since 1999. I think the fact that he’s gone may change people’s perception of Overstock from a shareholder perspective but not from a shopping perspective. We’re no different than we were last week. We’re a company focused on home decor with great products and great prices, great service.
About his shareholder letter saying goodbye — Patrick has been anything but ordinary for 20 years. He’s been extraordinary. He’s written many shareholder letters like that over the years. I think our shareholders know who Patrick is. That wasn’t a surprise to them.
How does this effect us going forward? We have different leadership. I think our shareholders will like our leadership. I talked to our shareholders yesterday; I think they’re excited about the focus the company will have on sustainable, profitable growth. I don’t see what Patrick did as anything that will surprise our shareholders. I think they know that will be the last shareholder letter from Patrick, because he’s no longer with the company in any formal fashion.
What is your plan for the coming weeks? How do you plan to show Overstock is the same stable company and will go on without him?
Patrick and I have been working together for 17 years. I was the president of Overstock and its retail — when it only had a retail business — for five years. I’ve been the president of its blockchain-focused business managing ventures for the last three years. From an employee and workforce standpoint, I think people see a lot of continuity already. We’ve met as a company, I’ve met with the different departments. I’ve talked to each of the executives. They know that our vision is not changing. They know that our focus isn’t changing. And much of what is credited to Patrick, has been put in place by the current team anyway. As far as focus of the company, that’s not going to change.
We’ll be holding a shareholder call Monday morning at 8:30. I hope shareholders understand that same thing — Patrick set the course for this ship. There may be a different hand on the tiller, at the helm, but the course won’t change. The only change is to get a little bit more wind in the sales. I think a lot of what the executive team and what their colleagues are doing will get just that.
From a customer perspective, people won’t see any difference. The website will look the same, the service will still be great. The product will still be beautiful. Every CEO is part of the brand, but at Overstock the brand has always been bigger than any one individual.
Are you concerned that there could be some kind of backlash amongst customers? We’re in this period where there’s more consumer activism— where people feel that they need to make political statements with their dollars — and it’s so easy just to switch to a different website.
When the first story about this broke on July 26, and when another story broke on the 12th of August, the company put out a press release, I had the analytics team look at the traffic, look at the website traffic, look at the product conversion and look at the sales. Really, really consistent with where it had been in the past — there doesn’t appear to have been any such negative impact.
I know there are consumer activists who will create a hashtag and do what they do, but I think most people — when they’re coming to buy sofas and duvets — are looking for great prices and good services. That’s what we’ve got.
There’s less friction in changing stores in internet shopping than there is walking across a mall or driving to a store across town. There’s no question about that. That hasn’t been an issue, I don’t think that will be an issue, because at the end of the day I think most people are looking for service, product and price. And that’s always been great at Overstock, and that’s not going to change because of what’s been said or who’s in charge.
Are there plans to make you the permanent head of Overstock?
My title is interim, but I hope the answer is I’m here to stay. I think the board [and I’m on that board] is acting prudently, and making sure that I’m the right person, and if I’m not— I’m sure they’ll look to find the right person. While the title is interim, I’m acting as if it is longterm.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]
Correction Aug. 27:
A photo caption in the original version of this story misstated Jonathan Johnson’s position. He was chairman of Overstock’s board from 2014 to 2017, and later a board member.