New Microsoft CEO faces big choices post-Steve Ballmer

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Steve Ballmer, who announced his retirement from the head of Microsoft Corp on Friday, had the misfortune to follow Bill Gates at the helm just as the company hit the end of its explosive growth period. Steve Ballmer, who announced his retirement from the head of Microsoft Corp on Friday, had the misfortune to follow Bill Gates at the helm just as the company hit the end of its explosive growth period.
SummaryBallmer's grand design calls for 'One Microsoft' and forge a future based on hardware, cloud-based services.

tablets or other computers.

SHAREHOLDERS CLAMOUR FOR MONEY, BALLMER'S HEAD

Throughout the last decade, as Microsoft's share price has remained flat, shareholders have called for bigger dividends and share buybacks to beef up their returns.

Microsoft obliged with a one-time $3 a share special dividend in 2004 and has trebled its quarterly dividend to 23 cents since then.

But shareholders still want a bigger slice of Microsoft's $77 billion cash hoard, $70 billion of which is held overseas.

Rick Sherlund, an analyst at Nomura, believes that if the retirement of Ballmer means the company is listening to ValueAct and its supporters, then action on the dividend and share buyback could perhaps happen as early as September 19, when Microsoft hosts its annual get-together with analysts and is expected announce its latest dividend.

"The momentum of shareholder activism is well underway and likely to benefit shareholders even though the process of how this unfolds is not certain," said Sherlund.

The lackluster performance of Microsoft's stock has long been the stick that shareholders beat Ballmer with, and it has looked all the worse compared with the staggering gains made by Apple Inc under Steve Jobs.

Yet Ballmer - who owns just under 4 percent of the company - never showed any doubts about his intention to stay in the job. His old friend and ally Bill Gates, who still owns 4.8 percent of the company, never wavered in his public support.

The first public signs of dissent on Microsoft's board came in 2010, when Ballmer's bonus was trimmed explicitly for the flop of the infamous Kin 'social' phone and a failure to match Apple's iPad, according to regulatory filings.

It was around that time, though not necessarily connected, that the board started considering how it would manage a succession, according to a source familiar with the matter. Ballmer and the board began talking to both internal and external candidates.

About 18 months to two years ago, Ballmer started thinking seriously about a succession plan, the internal source said.

The time since was not marked with glory for Ballmer, with a tepid launch of Windows 8, the disappointment of the Surface tablet, and a $731 million fine by European regulators for forgetting to offer a choice of browsers to Windows users.

Two to three months ago, Ballmer started thinking seriously about his retirement and concluded it was the "right time to start the process," the source said. That was shortly after ValueAct took a $2 billion

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