Q&A: Ballmer talks of starting a new chapter
Stepping away from the day-to-day work is “a big decision,” says the Microsoft CEO in an interview shortly after he announced his intent to retire from the company. “But I think it’s the right decision for Microsoft.... “
Seattle Times technology reporter
Microsoft Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer announced Friday that he will be retiring once a successor has been chosen within the next 12 months.
In an interview Friday morning with The Seattle Times, Ballmer talked about his decision, his biggest accomplishment and disappointment at Microsoft, and his future. He and Microsoft board member John Thompson, who is heading a committee to choose the next CEO, also talked about choosing a successor. (Thompson is CEO of Virtual Instruments and former chairman and CEO of Symantec.)
Here is the interview, edited for length.
Ballmer: Can I make just a comment or two before we get started?
Somebody said to me this morning: “Congratulations,” and I guess that’s right. That’s what people say when you retire. But Microsoft’s in my blood. I love the place.
I always knew I’d want to have one more chapter of my life beyond Microsoft. And I had to think hard as we embark on this new sort of strategy focused on devices and services. Whenever I was to go, we would have to have a period in which ... to do a proper succession. We can either start that now so that we have a successor in place who can really lead the multiyear journey, or I have to be prepared to sign up long enough so I’m not leaving in midstream relative to that multiyear journey.
I’m a shareholder, I’ll stay involved as a shareholder. I love owning Microsoft stock. But stepping out of the day-to-day is a big decision.
But I think it’s the right decision for Microsoft, given when the other times might have been for me to make a change.
Q: What was your original time plan for retirement? I think you said about 10 years ago that you would be retiring in 10 years or so.
Ballmer: What I remember being pretty consistent about is: I would certainly leave when my youngest son went to college. My middle son is going to college this year. My youngest son is still a couple years away.
But that is kind of how I’ve been thinking about it, and then I said: ‘No, no, that might mean I’m leaving right in the middle. That would not be the right time.’ ”
There’s no question this is a time of transformation for Microsoft. We’re moving from a company of business groups to a ‘One Microsoft’ management approach. We’re moving to focus in on devices and services much more explicitly. ...
The thing I had to ask myself, the real question, is: “OK, am I prepared to be the leader long enough to sort of push all the way through? And given my life plan, I felt like unless I did something now. ...
But really, this is about the company and its transformation. And while there’s never a perfect time, I wound up deciding that now is really the right time to make this announcement.
Q: You talked about wanting a next chapter of your life after retirement from Microsoft. Do you have any plans yet?
Ballmer: I have no plans. I think anybody who actually knows me knows I’m pretty all-consumed by my family and Microsoft. Other than the fact I like playing golf every now and then, I don’t have other passions.
But maybe that’s precisely why I say I wanted another chapter in my life is to get to experience something that’s not just those two things. And while I don’t know what that means, I relish the opportunity while I have my health, my energy. That’s part of the magic of life and I’m excited about it.
Q: Do you have any voice in who your successor will be?
Ballmer: I’m a member of the board, and we’ve got nine members of the board, and all nine members have a voice. I’m not on the special committee that’s directing the process, but John may want to talk about that. But I’m certainly a board member and I’m never shy about my opinions.
Thompson: I don’t know how you could ever find a new CEO or replace Steve without taking the benefit of the insights that Steve has about the people and the operations of Microsoft into effect. So Steve will clearly have a point of view and will be a part of the process to help us select the right next CEO.
Ballmer: It’s not like I’m moving out of Seattle or going someplace. You know, I’m happy to have coffee at any time — well, at least in my case, iced tea — with anybody at any time to talk about anything. I own a lot of shares of this company, and I’m kind of counting on (them). We have an incredible leadership team. This is, by far, the best leadership team we’ve ever had and the best leadership team in the industry. And I’m counting on them and whoever gets selected as new CEO to do us proud. ... So I’m cheering in every way, shape or form.
Q: What is the committee looking for in a successor?
Thompson: We’ve had a process under way for quite some time. I’ve been on the board myself for about 18 months, and in every meeting we’ve talked about succession.
We worked with Steve, as well as (executive search firm) Heidrick & Struggles to develop a profile of what we think the ideal candidate might look like.
Q: So you can’t divulge at this point any traits in general that you’re looking for?
Ballmer: They want somebody who’s got at least as much hair as I do.
Q: Who are the leading internal candidates?
Ballmer: We have a great team of people, and I know the board will look at internal and external candidates. ...
Thompson: This is a great team and there are really strong candidates within Microsoft. To try to declare, “Here’s who is leading,” would be unfair to anyone in the company, and, quite frankly, unfair to the whole search process.
Q: What would you say was your biggest accomplishment and your biggest disappointment as CEO?
Ballmer: I’d say my biggest — the thing I feel proudest about — is: I joined a company that was basically 30 people and $7-ish million of revenue, and we really gave birth to the whole notion that says people are going to use intelligent devices for their own personal usage.
When I joined Microsoft, my parents — I was dropping out of school — my parents asked me two questions: No. 1: “What’s software?” That was my dad’s question. And my mother asked me: “Why would a person ever need a computer?”
Well, when you think of all the intelligent devices now 33 years later in people’s lives, I know that we ... all played at Microsoft an incredible role in essentially making the personal, intelligent device happen. We made those things powerful, we made them productive, we made them help people’s lives be better, businesses be more productive.
And we did that, and at the same time, took a company that essentially made no money to a company that has made literally hundreds of billions of dollars of profit.
So it’s one thing to say, hey, we changed people’s lives. It’s another thing to be able to say we changed people’s lives, we offered them a great value, and we’ve made a great return for our shareholders.
There’s hardly a company in the world that’s ever returned as much profit and cash to its shareholders as Microsoft. So I’m proud that we were able to positively impact society and do that in a way that is a business success.
Q: So in terms of your biggest disappointment, would you say it’s the stagnant stock price in recent years?
Ballmer: I’m not a stock price-focused guy. I’m a person who focuses in on: Do we have the right technologies? Do we have winning products? Are we making money? We will make $20-plus billion (in profit). That’s pretty good.
If I had to say disappointment, the thing I feel worst about was our Longhorn and (Windows) Vista saga, because what we really did is we took an incredibly talented team of engineers and we tied them up for a very long period of time, only to ship a product that was probably, net, a step back, not a step forward.
I think we’ve done an incredible job in the last seven years, eight years in retooling our engineering processes, whether it’s Windows, Office, Bing. Our ability to pump out creative, original innovation is very different.
Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @janettu.