Microsoft’s CEO search: no Ballmer 2.0, please

It’s late in the game, but the wheels are turning in Washington. According to a White House statement this afternoon, “The president’s 3:00 p.m. meeting with the bipartisan leadership has been postponed to allow leaders in the Senate time to continue making important progress toward a solution that raises the debt limit and reopens the government.”

Even as the October 17 debt ceiling deadline looms large, that sense of progress appears to have been sufficient to give stocks a winning day, with the S&P 500 and the narrower, price-weighted Dow Jones Industrial Average  (DJINDICES: ^DJI)  gaining 0.4%.

Option traders took a less sanguine view, as the cost of hedging a stock portfolio rose, with the CBOE Volatility Index  (VOLATILITYINDICES: ^VIX)  gaining 2.2% to close at 16.07 (which still seems very low, at this stage in the game). The VIX, Wall Street’s “fear index,” is calculated from S&P 500 option prices and reflects investor expectations for stock market volatility over the coming 30 days.

Microsoft: The search continues

At the beginning of the month, I highlighted the report that three of Dow component Microsoft‘s (NASDAQ: MSFT)  top 20 investors, who represent an aggregate ownership stake of 5%, are pushing for co-founder Bill Gates to step down from the software company’s board. One of their concerns was Gates’ influence in selecting a successor to CEO Steve Ballmer. Microsoft announced on August 23 that Ballmer will retire within the next 12 months, as soon as the search for a new CEO is successful.

The Wall Street Journal just published an article that examines search process and it appears that there is no consensus regarding the profile of the next CEO. Two orientations are possible: someone with a technology background, who can play an instrumental role in driving product development (like Bill Gates), or a manager-type, someone who is experienced at managing a large organisation (more like Steve Ballmer, although his only other experience at a large company was a two-year stint at Procter & Gamble as an assistant product manager before returning to business school).

The Journal reports that Ballmer himself is pushing the candidacy of Ford Motor (NYSE: F)  CEO Alan Mulally; the two are friends, and Mulally has acted as an advisor to the Microsoft CEO, including with regard to a massive reorganisation announced in July.

I think Mulally could very well make a first-rate leader at a time when Microsoft is is struggling to find itself as consumers move toward a post-PC era. At Ford, he has certainly gained experience steering the automaker through a difficult, tumultuous period and he has good results to show for it. Alas, when the question was put to him by the media, Mulally said he was committed to staying at Ford through 2014. Nevertheless, Microsoft’s search committee did approach Mulally, among at least eight outsiders and two Microsoft executives.

Another high-profile name on that list is Oracle President Mark Hurd, who was previously CEO of Hewlett-Packard. Here again, though, Hurd has declared that he plans to remain at Oracle (statements like this are a dime a dozen in business, however).

But getting back to another constituency, Microsoft’s top investors — what do they want? The article suggests they favor a managerial/operational guru in Mulally’s mold, because they think that such an executive would give maximum regard to shareholder returns in his decision making. The acquisition of Nokia’s handset business, Ballmer’s “parting shot,” is just the sort of thing these investors surely would want his successor to refrain from.

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A version of this article, written by Alex Dumortier, CFA, originally appeared on

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