NEW YORK — Don't let the hoodie and sneakers fool you. Mark Zuckerberg is no wet-behind-the-ears CEO.
Facebook's chief executive turns 28 today, setting in motion the social network's biggest week ever. The company is expected to start selling stock to the public for the first time and begin trading on the Nasdaq Stock Market on Friday. The IPO could value Facebook at nearly $100 billion, making it worth more than such iconic companies as Disney, Ford and Kraft Foods.
At 28, Zuckerberg is exactly half the age of the average S&P 500 CEO, according to executive search firm Spencer Stuart. With eight years on the job, he's logged more time as leader than the average CEO, whose tenure is a little more than seven years, according to Spencer Stuart. Even so, the pressures of running a public company will undoubtedly take some getting used to. Once Facebook begins selling stock, Zuckerberg will be expected to please a host of new stakeholders, including Wall Street investment firms, hedge funds and pension funds who will pressure him to keep the company growing.
Young as he may seem —especially in that hooded sweatshirt— Zuckerberg will be about the same age as Michael Dell and older than Steve Jobs when those two took their companies, Dell Inc. and Apple Inc., public. In his years as Facebook's CEO he's met world leaders, rode a bull in Vietnam while on vacation, started learning Mandarin Chinese and as a personal challenge, wore a tie for the better part of a year.
Facebook, of course, got its start in Zuckerberg's messy Harvard dorm room in early 2004. Known as Thefacebook.com back in those days, the site was created to help Harvard students — and later other college students — connect with one another online. The scrappy website later grew to include high-schoolers, then anyone else with an Internet connection. Today more than 900 million people log in at least once a month, making Facebook the world's definitive social network.
All along, Zuckerberg has shown a maturity beyond his years. As the site grew rapidly and caught the eye of big media and rival Internet companies, Zuckerberg consistently rebuffed mouth-watering buyout offers, including from Google Inc. and Yahoo Inc.
"Simply put: we don't build services to make money; we make money to build better services," wrote Zuckerberg in his letter to prospective shareholders. "And we think this is a good way to build something. These days I think more and more people want to use services from companies that believe in something beyond simply maximizing profits."
People who've observed Zuckerberg closely say his age is an asset. His is the generation that grew up with social networking, with computers all around them and the Internet as something that's always existed. Many of his employees are younger than him, as are a lot of the up-and-coming technology entrepreneurs with whom he competes.
"I don't think you could build a company like this if you were an old guy like me," says David Kirkpatrick, a 59-year-old author who chronicled the company's early history in "The Facebook Effect". Kirkpatrick, who is also founder of Techonomy, a media company that hosts conferences on the relationship between technology and economy and social progress, first met Zuckerberg six years ago. He says he was impressed with his vision, even then. "It's the willingness to take risks, the willingness to abide by a very contemporary vision ... I don't think that he's too young. I think most CEOs are too old."
Zuckerberg, who lives in Palo Alto, Calif. with is girlfriend and a white Hungarian Puli dog named Beast, has matured as a leader with the help of experienced mentors. One of his closest advisors is Sheryl Sandberg, who he hired away from Google in 2008. Zuckerberg, known for sometimes-awkward public appearances, realized that the razor-sharp, people-savvy advertising executive complements his own shortcomings. Sandberg is Zuckerberg's No. 2, the chief operating officer who oversees advertising and often serves as Facebook's smiling, public face.