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E-BAY CEO WHITMAN TO STEP DOWN MARCH 31: Meg Whitman will step down soon as chief executive of eBay Inc., the online auction company that went from wobbly startup to multibillion-dollar household name in her 10-year tenure. Whitman, 51, had been reported to be plotting the move and handing the job to John Donahoe, 47, who has been heading eBay's core auction and e-commerce businesses. She confirmed her March 31 departure as eBay reported fourth-quarter earnings Wednesday. Whitman will remain on eBay's board of directors. Whitman reminded analysts in a conference call that she often has said that 10 years is about as long as any CEO should serve. She said coming to eBay was a "remarkable opportunity" that has "exceeded all my expectations." The experience also has made Whitman, eBay's third-largest individual shareholder, a billionaire. EBay shares rose $1.81, or 6.7 percent, to close at $28.94 in advance of the earnings report and Whitman's announcement. It came as eBay reported a 53 percent gain in fourth-quarter profits due to a strong holiday season.

SETTLEMENT REACHED ON WOODEN RAILWAY TOYS: The maker of "Thomas & Friends Wooden Railway" toys has agreed to pay $30 million to settle a nationwide class-action lawsuit by thousands of families who purchased lead-tainted products, a plaintiffs' attorney said Wednesday. Under the deal, Oakbrook, Ill.-based RC2 Brands will offer cash refunds or replacement toys, plus what the company calls a bonus toy; it also promises to implement new quality controls, said Jay Edelson, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs. The lawsuit was filed in Chicago last year, and the court gave the settlement preliminary approval on Tuesday. In June of last year, the Consumer Product Safety Commission announced RC2 was voluntarily recalling about 1.5 million items in what would become the first of several recalls involving lead paint on toys made in China. By mid-September, RC2 had recovered about 1 million items, sending bonus gifts to those who returned a product. That flopped when testing showed that lead in the paint on about 2,000 "Toad" train cars in the bonus shipment was up to four times higher than acceptable levels.

FUEL COSTS STILL FIGURE IN AIRLINE CONSOLIDATION: Airline consolidation may not be the panacea for the industry amid persistently high fuel prices, but observers say it would help by removing domestic capacity from the system. As several major carriers talk about possible combinations, two airlines -- Delta and Southwest -- gave investors another dose of reality by saying Wednesday their future results will continue to be weighed down by the cost of fuel. Delta Air Lines Inc. officials were mum on the status of talks with Northwest Airlines Corp. and UAL Corp.'s United Airlines about possible combinations, as the Atlanta-based carrier reported fourth-quarter results that were hampered by jet fuel costs. Southwest Airlines Co. reported its profit almost doubled in the fourth quarter, but said fuel costs in the current quarter will rise substantially for the Dallas-based carrier.

AT&T WILL MAKE ITS WI-FI HOTSPOTS FREE: AT&T Inc. said Wednesday it will make its 10,000 Wi-Fi hotspots free to nearly all of its broadband Internet customers starting early next week. Only subscribers to AT&T's premium broadband services previously had free access to its hotspots, leaving out the majority of high-speed users who have the 1.5-Mbps service. Now, more than 10 million broadband customers, most of AT&T's high-speed Internet subscribers, will be able to use the hotspots free of charge. Most Wi-Fi hotspots -- in restaurants, airports and other public places -- charge daily or monthly fees for access. AT&T wireless customers who use Apple's iPhone must get a Wi-Fi package to use it at AT&T hotspots. Now, they now can use their iPhones at hotspots free if they are AT&T broadband subscribers.

BEE NEWS SERVICES

Figuratively Speaking

1: Rank of "working with a boss they respect and can learn from" as the most important consideration in selecting an employer by baby boomers and Generation Y (those born from 1979 to 1999) -- ahead of having a nice office, a short commute and working for a socially responsible company, according to a study from Robert Half International and Yahoo!

60: Percentage of Generation-Y members who want to hear from their managers at least once a day

$650 billion: Yearly cost of unnecessary work interruptions to the U.S. economy, according to a study conducted by Basex

JOHN MacINTYRE,

UNIVERSAL PRESS SYNDICATE

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