Some board members and large investors in WeWork are privately discussing whether and how to replace the company’s co-founder, Adam Neumann, as chief executive to salvage the company’s fortunes, three people involved in the talks said.
Among those now favoring removing the charismatic but erratic Mr. Neumann is SoftBank, the Japanese technology giant that is the biggest investor in the co-working company.
The discussions have come as some major money managers have said that they would not invest in WeWork unless an experienced operator was brought in, these people said.
The talks about Mr. Neumann’s role are for the moment informal. But they could lead to a public insurrection within WeWork at a time when its fundamental business, along with Mr. Neumann’s management, are in question.
And the potential battle threatens to repeat the high-profile ouster of another prominent start-up’s chief executive — when the board of the ride-hailing company Uber essentially forced out its co-founder, Travis Kalanick, in 2017.
The discussions among WeWork directors and investors come after its parent, the We Company, was forced to postpone a planned initial public offering last week amid concerns from prospective investors about both the company’s business model and the way that it is run.
The board members and investors have not yet approached Mr. Neumann about their concerns, these people said. But Mr. Neumann has indicated that he is not interested in relinquishing any more power. He had already agreed to some corporate governance changes that reduce his control, including the naming of a lead independent director and a reduction in his voting power.
It is unclear how the board could remove Mr. Neumann, who controls the voting power within the company, without his consent. Several investors have floated the idea of threatening Mr. Neumann with legal action, two of the people said — potentially over conflicts of interest that have already come to light during the I.P.O. process.
Spokesmen for both WeWork and SoftBank declined to comment.
For much of its nine-year history, WeWork was seen as a start-up that apparently defied gravity. It turned the business of co-working — leasing huge amounts of office space and converting it into work areas that it rents out to professionals and companies — into an operation with meteoric growth. It is now the single biggest private tenant in Manhattan.
And that growth helped convince investors that WeWork could be the next big thing. It was last valued in January at $47 billion by SoftBank, which to date has invested over $10.5 billion in the company.
More than any single person, Mr. Neumann turned WeWork into what it is today. He gained fame and notoriety for aiming the company’s goals high. WeWork wasn’t a real estate company, he argued; it was a state of consciousness. He has sought to transform not just the way we work and live, but the very world we live in.
“How do you change the world?” he said in an interview last year. “Bring people together. Where is the easiest big place to bring people together? In the work environment.”
He also persuaded investors to ignore WeWork’s deep and growing losses, which in the first half of this year were $1.37 billion. It reported that it had spent $1.5 billion running its business and building out its operations, that it had nearly $2.5 billion of cash on hand at the end of June.
But Mr. Neumann has been a lightning rod for criticism as well. He promoted an offbeat corporate culture derided for sometimes emphasizing drinking beer and tequila. His management style has sometimes been erratic: He once unilaterally declared that WeWork would ban meat from the company — forcing executives to quickly cobble together a rationale for why.
And he has been accused of potential conflicts of interest. He has invested in properties that leased space to WeWork. (Mr. Neumann later sold his stakes in the properties to an investment arm of WeWork.) He owns a special class of shares that gives him outsize control of the company.
Moreover, he had given outsized power to family members like his wife, Rebekah, including naming her to a three-person committee that would pick his successor if he dies or is permanently disabled.
Earlier this month, Mr. Neumann and WeWork agreed to corporate governance changes that trimmed some of his control. His voting power was halved, while Ms. Neumann was stripped of her role in picking his successor. And he agreed to return $5.9 million he received from the company for the trademarks for the word “we.”
Those changes were not enough to allay the concerns of potential investors, who had told WeWork’s advisers that they were unlikely to invest in the company’s initial public offering at anywhere close to a $47 billion valuation. Executives and bankers had discussed slashing the valuation to $15 billion — but were unable to gin up enough interest.