Who Really Owns Google (Alphabet) and Who Controls It

Article Teaser: Who Owns Alphabet: The Largest Shareholders Overview

Alphabet (GOOGL, GOOG) is the parent company of Google. Alphabet also owns some other smaller companies, but Google is the only one that really matters. It is one of the largest companies in the world, earning money predominantly from advertising. So, who are its largest shareholders, and who controls the voting power?

The largest shareholders of Alphabet Inc. are Vanguard, with a 7% ownership share, followed by BlackRock (6%), founder Larry Page (6%), and co-founder Sergey Brin (6%). However, thanks to “super-voting” shares, Larry and Sergey hold 51% of all votes and have control over Alphabet (Google).

 Alphabet's Largest Shareholders (Dec 2021)
Shareholder Ownership Voting Power
Vanguard 6.6% 3.1%
BlackRock 6.0% 2.7%
Larry Page 5.9% 26.3%
Sergey Brin 5.7% 25.0%
Eric Schmidt 1.1% 4.2%
Other 74.6% 38.7%
Listed are shareholders holding >5% of any share class or notable in other ways
   Source: Multiple SEC filings

Alphabet largest shareholders by share ownership and vote control (donut chart) Alphabet largest shareholders by share ownership and vote control (donut chart)

As you can see from the table and visuals above, founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin are clearly in control. They have the majority of votes without owning the majority of shares. Interestingly, even Eric Schmidt, who was Google’s CEO for some time, has more voting power than the biggest shareholder Vanguard.

Larry and Sergey are no longer actively managing Google and Alphabet. Larry handed over the CEO position of Google in 2015 to Sundar Pichai and became CEO of Alphabet, while Sergey held the title of Alphabet president (whatever that role meant). In 2019 they both exited even those positions, and Sundar became CEO of the whole Alphabet holding.

That being said, even though Larry and Sergey exited official positions within Alphabet and we do not see their faces in the news or congress hearings, with 51% voting power, they still firmly hold the reins of Alphabet’s and Google and sit on Alphabet’s Board of Directors.

In this article, I will dive more into who Alphabet’s largest shareholders are, how many shares and votes they have, and how much their stake is worth. I will also explore some other topics related to its ownership structure.

If you are interested, you can also check my other articles about different parts of Alphabet’s business. For example, about how it makes money from Android and Google Maps. I also made a deep dive into what companies Alphabet owns and how the whole holding is organized.

Or you can explore who are the largest shareholders in other technology companies like Apple, Meta(Facebook), Amazon, or Microsoft.

🕹️ Who Owns Alphabet (GOOGL) and Who Has Control?

Alphabet (Google) is kind of a “different” company from most others. It is renowned for its “engineering first” approach. This approach is behind its successes and, in my view, also behind many of its failures to commercialize its technology and innovations.

Alphabet also stands out thanks to the voting control the founders Larry and Sergey have over the company. All of it thanks to special B-Class shares that they hold.

Alphabet largest shareholders share ownership vs vote control chart

As you can see from the chart above, founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin are clearly in control. They have a majority of votes without owning the majority of shares.

While standard A-class shares that are traded under the GOOGL ticker have one vote per share, B-class shares that Google founders hold have ten votes per share. B-class shares are not publicly traded and are the reason behind Larry and Sergey’s voting power of 51%. This fact makes the voting power of all other shareholders irrelevant.

To make things even more complicated, Alphabet has another class of shares, Class C, and those shares have no voting power at all.

To summarize, Alphabet is currently having three classes of shares:

  • Class A: “normal” shares with 1 vote per share. Publicly traded with ticker GOOGL
  • Class B: “super-voting” shares with 10 votes per share, not traded publicly and owned mainly by founders
  • Class C: “non-voting” shares with no vote, only share on equity. Publicly traded with ticker GOOG.

🗳️ Breakdown of Alphabet’s Outstanding Shares and Votes by Top Shareholders

Alphabet Inc. had a total of 662 million outstanding shares as of December 2021. The following table shows how many shares each Alphabet’s large shareholder holds.

 Alphabet's Outstanding Shares by Shareholder
In millions of shares as of December 2021
Shareholder Class A Class B Class C Total % Share
Vanguard 23 - 21 44 6.6%
BlackRock 20 - 19 40 6.0%
Larry Page - 20 20 39 5.9%
Sergey Brin - 19 19 38 5.7%
Eric Schmidt 0 3 4 7 1.1%
Other 257 3 234 494 74.6%
Total (# millions) 301 45 317 662 100.0%
Listed are shareholders holding >5% of any share class or notable in other ways
   Source: Multiple SEC filings

There were 747 million votes distributed among shareholders of Alphabet Inc.. The table below shows the total number of votes for each large shareholder.

 Alphabet's Vote Control by Shareholder
In millions of votes as of December 2021
Shareholder Class A Class B Total % Share
Larry Page - 196 196 26.3%
Sergey Brin - 187 187 25.0%
Eric Schmidt 0 31 31 4.2%
Vanguard 23 - 23 3.1%
BlackRock 20 - 20 2.7%
Other 257 33 289 38.7%
Total (# millions) 301 447 747 100.0%
Listed are shareholders holding >5% of any share class or notable in other ways
   Source: Multiple SEC filings

Owning class B shares is the key to Larry and Sergey’s control of Alphabet (and Google). Their 10x voting power allows founders to call the shots.

💵 Breakdown of Alphabet’s Market Value by Shareholder

The following table summarizes how much is each shareholder’s stake in Alphabet Inc. worth.

However, keep in mind that a stake in Alphabet could be just one part of their portfolio, and their total worth could be bigger, thanks to other investments. It could also be lower if they have debts.

 Alphabet's Market Value by Shareholder
Market value in billions $ as of December 2021
Shareholder Class A Class B Class C Total % Share
Vanguard $67 - $61 $127 6.6%
BlackRock $59 - $56 $115 6.0%
Larry Page - $57 $57 $114 5.9%
Sergey Brin - $54 $54 $109 5.7%
Eric Schmidt $1 $9 $12 $22 1.1%
Other $744 $9 $677 $1,431 74.6%
Total ($ billions) $871 $129 $917 $1,917 100.0%
Listed are shareholders holding >5% of any share class or notable in other ways
   Source: Multiple SEC filings

Let’s now look at each Alphabet shareholder individually.

📒 Who Are the Largest Shareholders of Alphabet Inc.

Let’s now go through the list of the largest shareholders of Alphabet Inc. one by one and look at who they are, how many shares they own, what is their voting power, and how much is their stake in Alphabet worth.

#1 Vanguard

Vanguard holds 7% of Alphabet’s shares, making it its largest shareholder. However, its voting power is only 3% since some of the other shareholders hold super-voting shares that dilute Vanguard’s control of Alphabet.

Alphabet largest shareholders share ownership vs vote control chart

Vanguard owns 44 million Alphabet shares, representing 23 million shareholder votes. The market value of Vanguard’s stake in Alphabet was $127 billion as of December 2021.

Vanguard (The Vanguard Group) is one of the largest asset managers in the world. It manages other people’s money through its mutual funds and exchange-traded funds and also offers other related investing and financial planning services.

Vanguard differs from other large asset managers by having no actual “owner .” Officially Vanguard says that its investors own it since its funds own it, and Vanguard fund investors own those funds.

However, the actual decision power is in the hands of Vanguard’s insiders since the ownership is diluted over millions of investors worldwide.

Vanguard has significant influence over the largest public companies. Thanks to its size, Vanguard usually belongs to the largest shareholders in those companies and has considerable power at their shareholder meetings. This is especially true if ownership is diluted.

Vanguard representatives make the calls about which shareholder proposal to support or not, even though Vanguard is not the ultimate owner of those stocks and they belong to their clients.

It means that just a few people in charge of the largest asset managers have significant sway over many publicly traded companies. They are usually the median investors that can push or kill many proposals. As passive investing became more popular and the asset management market more concentrated, this became quite a concerning issue.

  • Several terms were coined to describe this issue. Some call it asset manager capitalism, and popular is also the power of twelve. Financial Times even put together who exactly those twelve people might be.

  • Vanguard and other large fund managers are trying to address those concerns by having public policies describing how they are exercising their voting power. But as you can imagine, this is still a situation full of conflicts of interest.
  • Evidence shows that big asset managers usually vote together with management.

#2 BlackRock

BlackRock holds 6% of Alphabet’s shares which makes it its second-largest shareholder. However, its voting power is only 3% since some of the other shareholders hold super-voting shares that dilute BlackRock’s control of Alphabet.

Alphabet largest shareholders share ownership vs vote control chart

BlackRock owns 40 million Alphabet shares, representing 20 million shareholder votes. The market value of BlackRock’s stake in Alphabet was $115 billion as of December 2021.

BlackRock, Inc. is the world’s largest asset manager, with assets under management of $10 trillion. BlackRock is not only an asset manager, but it also provides other asset managers and corporations with its Aladdin portfolio management software.

BlackRock is a publicly traded company, and its largest shareholders are its competitors, including BlackRock itself. Not directly but through their passive and active funds. The largest shareholder is Vanguard.

A similar situation is also true in the opposite direction because BlackRock is a significant shareholder in many of its publicly traded competitors and other large institutions, making the whole thing even more eyebrow-raising.

This circular ownership between Vanguard, BlackRock, and other large asset managers, amplifies the issue often raised about the power of these large asset managers over public companies since they usually belong to the most significant shareholders.

  • BlackRock and other large asset managers do not invest their own money, but they have significant voting power that, in most cases, is not passed through to the underlying investors. Therefore, BlackRock itself and its representatives have significant sway over decisions in those companies.

  • In the case of Blackrock, this influence is personified in the form of its CEO Larry Fink, who is a powerful figure with close ties in the FED and US government.

  • Adding to these concerns is evidence that BlackRock and other asset managers usually vote in favor of management proposals.

  • Recently, large asset managers started to be more sympathetic to different climate and environmental-related proposals and even supported activists that went against the management’s wishes. BlackRock was particularly aggressive in this change. Another proof of the power these companies have.

#3 Larry Page

Larry Page holds 6% of Alphabet’s shares making him its third-largest shareholder. However, thanks to super-voting shares that Larry Page owns, his share of total votes is 26%.

Alphabet largest shareholders share ownership vs vote control chart

Larry Page owns 39 million Alphabet shares, representing 196 million shareholder votes. The market value of Larry Page’s stake in Alphabet was $114 billion as of December 2021.

Larry Page founded Google in 1998 together with its co-founder SergeyBrin. The core product was the commercialization of their “PageRank” web ranking algorithm Larry and Sergey developed together at Stanford University during their Ph.D. studies.

Larry does not have any active management role within Google or Alphabet anymore. However, he still has a significant influence on it as a member of Alphabet’s Board of Directors and as a controlling shareholder of Alphabet together with Sergey Brin.

Besides its investment in Google, Larry also invested in flying car startups Kitty Hawk and Opener.

Larry was CEO of Google for the first time from 1998 until 2001 and was the leading visionary behind Google’s success. He left that CEO position as investors pressured him to leave the rains to somebody with more experience. Larry’s sometimes unorthodox moves, like firing all the product managers in 2001, understandably scared them off.

In the meantime, when Eric Schmidt became CEO, Larry focused, for example, on Android, which he helped build into a dominant mobile operating system in just a few years since its acquisition in 2005.

In 2011 with much more experience, Larry became the CEO of Google again. During this time, Google entered a few-year period full of bold acquisitions and innovations, some entirely unrelated to Google’s core business.

  • For example, it was when Google introduced Google Glass, Chromebook, and Google+. Google also continued to invest in self-driving cars and AI generally. Notable acquisitions were robotics company Boston Dynamics and Nest. Google also founded Calico, which focused on aging and age-related diseases.
  • However, despite impressive focus on these “Big Bet” investments in innovations, looking back, many of those projects ended up without any tangible business result to show for it. Not so much because they failed in the technology part, but mainly because Google failed to create a sustainable business out of them.

In 2015 Larry Page handed over Google’s CEO position to Sundar Pichai and became CEO of the new holding company Alphabet Inc., which was set up as an owner of Google. Some other former Google projects were transformed to separate companies under Alphabet too.

Since 2015 both Larry and Sergey limited their public appearances outside of internal Google meetings, and in 2019 they announced that they were stepping down even from Alphabet positions. Since then, they virtually became invisible.

#4 Sergey Brin

Sergey Brin holds 6% of Alphabet’s shares. However, thanks to super-voting shares that Sergey Brin owns, his share of total votes is 25%.

Alphabet largest shareholders share ownership vs vote control chart

Sergey Brin owns 38 million Alphabet shares, representing 187 million shareholder votes. The market value of Sergey Brin’s stake in Alphabet was $109 billion as of December 2021.

Sergey Brin cofounded Google with Larry Page in 1998. Thanks to his stake in Alphabet Inc., he is one of the world’s wealthiest people.

Sergey does not currently hold any executive position within Google or Alphabet. However, he is still, together with Larry Page, a controlling shareholder, and member of Alphabet’s Board of Directors.

He was born in Moscow, but his family emigrated to the US when he was six years old. He met with Larry Page at Standford when he needed help with math on its PageRank algorithm. Sergey’s extroversion balanced the lack of it in Larry’s case.

Sergey held different positions within Google, either as a “President” or “Head of Google X.” Google X represented many of Google’s innovative moonshot projects, and Brinn was involved in several of them. He worked on self-driving cars and also on the Google Glass project. Google Glass product no longer exists, but for a while, it was hard to find a picture of Brin without it.

Besides Alphabet, Sergey Brin is an investor in “Lighter Than Air Research,” which is a startup that wants to build building electric airships.

#5 Eric Schmidt

Eric Schmidt holds 1% of Alphabet’s shares. However, thanks to super-voting shares that Eric Schmidt owns, his share of total votes is 4%.

Alphabet largest shareholders share ownership vs vote control chart

Eric Schmidt owns 7 million Alphabet shares, representing 31 million shareholder votes. The market value of Eric Schmidt’s stake in Alphabet was $22 billion as of December 2021.

Eric Shmidt was CEO of Google from 2001 to 2011. After that, he served as an executive chairman of Google and Alphabet Inc. Equity awards during his time at Google made him a billionaire. He still holds a sizable stake in Alphabet Inc.

Schmidt currently holds no management positions at Google or Alphabet. Besides Alphabet Inc., he, for example, invested in D.E.Shaw&Co. investment management firm.

💸 Can Larry or Sergey Sell Their Alphabet’s Super-voting Shares to Somebody Else?

They can, and they are already slowly doing that. But we don’t need to worry because Class B shares have their super-voting power only if they are in the hands of the original holders. In case original holders sell them, stocks automatically convert to ordinary Class A shares with one vote per share.

There is one exception from this rule, and that is if original holders of Class B shares sell those shares to another original holder of B class shares. In that case, Class B shares will keep their super-voting power. For example, Lary and Sergey can buy B shares from Erik.

So this means there will be no new Class B shares holders.

⚰️ What If Some of Google’s Founders Die? Who Will Be in Control of Alphabet?

If any of the two founders die, their stock will automatically convert to ordinary Class A shares with one vote per share. This means Class B shares cannot be inherited without losing their extra voting powers.

If founders make some provision beforehand, their voting rights can be transferred in case of their death to other class B shareholders. If they do it, conversion to ordinary shares will not happen immediately, but after nine months.

♾️ Will Larry and Sergey Stay in Control of Alphabet for Their Whole Lifetime?

Currently, the two founders of Google hold 51% of voting rights, a drop from the 55% control they had in 2014. Does this mean that as founders liquidate part of their holdings each year, their share will decrease below 50%?

Not necessarily, as is apparent from the last couple of years when Larry and Sergey are still selling shares, but their voting power is stuck around 51%. This is possible thanks to Alphabet Inc. buying back a massive amount of its own shares each year.

Alphabet Inc. is a cash-generating machine, and even though it does not pay dividends, it distributes cash to investors in the form of share buyback. Share buybacks decrease the total number of Alphabet’s outstanding shares and allow shareholders, including Larry and Sergey, to sell some shares and keep the same voting power.

But, you might understandably ask, wait a minute, founders also own class C shares without voting rights. Why don’t they sell only those shares? This way, they can liquidate up to 50% of their shares (all class C shares) without decreasing their voting power at all.

Well, this is not allowed, thanks to an agreement that Larry, Sergey, and Erik made during the introduction of the C-class shares.

  • Other investors were obviously not comfortable with this when C shares were proposed, so the agreement was that if at any moment Larry and Sergey owned more B shares than C shares, those B shares would automatically convert to A shares (with just one vote). This provision will ensure that if founders want to liquidate part of their holdings, they will have to decrease also their voting power.

Even if Larry and Sergey need to sell a large number of stocks and their voting power falls below 50%, they still will have virtual control since it is probable they will readily find a few shareholders that will support their proposal.

Ownership of the rest of the shareholders is quite fragmented, and let’s not forget that their former CEO, Erik Schmidt, also controls another 4% of votes.

Moreover, if Larry’s and Sergey’s combined share of votes falls below 34%, they are allowed to start selling only C shares only. This provision will enable them to keep their share at the 34% level for a very long time unless they find some new, ridiculously expensive hobby requiring liquidating all of Alphabet’s stocks.

We probably need to accept that Larry and Sergey will keep having control over Alphabet for their lifetime. Since Alphabet is also funding longevity research, this can be a really long lifetime.

💭 Do The Calls For Equal Voting Rights Make Sense?

Some shareholders do not like the super-voting power Google founders have over Alphabet, and they very often call for introducing equal voting rights for all stock classes.

Although somebody might see it as a “fair” proposal, to me, it sounds like an incredibly ridiculous demand that goes against fairness and common sense. Why do I think so? Larry and Sergey negotiated the deal with the investors back then. They agreed that they would take investors’ money, but they wanted to keep control of the company. And those investors, in the end, agreed to this.

We might argue that it is unnatural and that there is data showing that companies with this strange super-voting share underperform their peers. But none of that matters today. Investors made a deal with the founders and agreed to their super-voting status. So they need to accept it.

And even if somebody became an investor later, he knew in advance that this was a deal and that if they bought the stocks, this is what they are getting. It simply does not make sense to come years later, crying that it is not fair. It was no secret, and Alphabet is quite clear about that in their annual reports.

“Our certificate of incorporation provides for a tri-class capital stock structure. As a result of this structure, Larry and Sergey have significant influence over all matters requiring stockholder approval. This concentrated control could discourage others from initiating any potential merger, takeover, or other change of control transaction that other stockholders may view as beneficial.”

— Excerpt from Alphabet’s 2021 Annual Report (10-K)

There might be a reasonable demand for stripping Alphabet’s founders of their super-voting rights if the investors can prove that founders misuse their voting power. If they would make decisions that have value for them personally but not for the other investors.

And I am not talking about obvious illegal things like channeling money from Google to other companies under the founder’s control. That is totally out of the line. The problem might also be if founders use Alphabet as a playground for their pet projects, which has no financial value for other shareholders.

Some of Alphabet’s “Other Bets” might seem like these kinds of pet projects. However, founders might have an excellent counter-argument. Their very old “pet” projects like Google, Android, or Chrome are earning billions of dollars every year, and nobody is complaining about that.

To sum up, we need to accept Alphabet Inc as it is. Be aware of the founders’ super-voting powers and the fact that it is not going away anytime soon.

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Other Resources

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