As Steve Ballmer’s tenure as Microsoft CEO winds to a close, flak for the company’s middling stock prices and stifled innovation is starting to land, for the first time, on Bill Gates himself.
Three of Microsoft’s top 20 investors told Reuters they are currently lobbying Microsoft’s board of directors, pressing Gates to step down as chairman of the board. The identities of the investors have been kept anonymous, but they collectively hold more than 5% of Microsoft’s stock. While 5% isn’t anywhere close to a majority, it’s enough to make some noise.
Dissatisfied with Ballmer alone stepping aside, the investors are worried that Gates—also a member of the special committee searching for Ballmer’s successor—would handcuff the next CEO’s autonomy as chairman. These investors believe Gates’ presence would curb the new CEO’s ability to implement new strategies and substantial changes, changes the company is in sore need of.
Microsoft is still a US$277 billion company and one of the most valuable technology companies in the world, but its shares have stagnated in the past decade as companies like Apple and Google gained ground in the smartphone and tablet markets while Microsoft, for too long, remained dependent on its PC assets: the Windows OS and Office software suite.
Ballmer eventually jumped on the mobile bandwagon, engineering Windows Phones and Surface tablets, but it’s been too little too late thus far, as Microsoft’s mobile sales continue to lag behind Apple and Android. Ballmer announced his plan to retire within a year in late August.
Ballmer’s strategy, focusing on manufacturing the Windows Phone, Surface tablet and Xbox One gaming console, is still going forward, but some investors say the next chief should not be bound by that strategy. Gates, despite being a cofounder of the company and a pioneer of the digital age, is ultimately representative of the old guard.
The investors in question also believe Gates wields a disproportionate amount of power with his 4.5% ownership, which under a pre-set selling plan will dwindle each year until he has no stake in the company by 2018. He spends the majority of his time nowadays with philanthropic efforts through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Gates isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. The board is under no obligation to bow to this shareholder pressure, and Gates is still the largest single shareholder in the company. Not to mention, he’s Bill Gates.
There’s still strong support for Gates within the company, so shareholder reactions to the request have been decidedly mixed.
“This is long overdue,” said Todd Lowenstein, a Microsoft shareholder and portfolio manager at HighMark Capital Management. “Replacing the old guard with some fresh eyes can provide the oxygen needed to properly evaluate their corporate strategy.”
It also adds fuel to the fire that Gates may return as CEO at some point down the line, maybe sooner rather than later.
Kim Caughey Forrest, senior analyst at Fort Pitt Capital Group, suggested now was not the time for Microsoft to ditch Gates, and that he could even play a larger role. “I’ve thought that the company has been missing a technology visionary,” she said. “Bill would fit the bill.”
Whatever this ultimately means for Gates, Microsoft, and the company’s next CEO, it’s the first time Gates himself has truly come under fire. It’s still early going, but regardless of how this saga plays out, Microsoft is in for a radical transformation, inside and out.