When Ballmer became CEO in 2000, Microsoft’s valuation had recently hit its record of over $620 billion. That’s about $850 billion in today’s money when adjusted for inflation. Under the co-leadership of Ballmer and Gates, that valuation has dropped from $850 billion to $280 billion, a loss in shareholder value of $570 billion.
How do you remove the company’s largest shareholder from a board, anyway?
You can’t, usually. But Gates won’t be the biggest shareholder for long. Gates currently holds just 4.5% of Microsoft’s stock. And even the three investors calling for his removal represent more shares (5%) than Gates owns.
If enough investors unite, Gates could be outvoted and removed.
Besides, Gates sells Microsoft shares at a pre-determined rate that leaves him with zero shares in less than five years. Unless Gates changes something, he will own no Microsoft stock by 2018.
Microsoft is currently looking for a new CEO. Regardless of whether the company brings in someone from the outside or promotes from within -- or puts Nokia’s CEO Stephen Elop in charge of Microsoft -- that new leader will be lorded over by a domineering Gates, under whose chairmanship Microsoft has lost approximately half its value since 1999.
Removing Gates from the Microsoft board is an unpopular idea. This is Microsoft! He’s Bill Gates! It’s not right to remove the founder from leadership in his own company, right? Besides, he’s such an awesome guy now, saving lives with his foundation and all.
Sure, if you believe corporate directors should hold their seats for sentimental reasons, or purely for the happiness of the directors, then Bill Gates should be on the board. And if you like the direction Gates and his man Ballmer have taken the company in the past 14 years and want more of the same, then by all means advocate his place on the board.
But for anyone who thinks Microsoft has been failing for the past 14 years, and who believes a director who has been driving that failure is a liability to the company, then Gates has got to go.
What Microsoft needs now is a bold leader with a clue, not another yes-man personally selected by Gates. The next CEO needs to solve Microsoft’s historic inability to launch products based on its own research. He or she needs to get desktop touch computing into the hands of consumers.
And most of all, Microsoft needs to figure out how to ship great products before or at the same time as comparable products from Apple and Google, not several years later.
But even the best leader will fail if Microsoft’s founder, former CEO and board chairman continues to use his outsized influence to push the wrong products -- or the right products at the wrong time -- based on his tone deaf inability to understand what customers really want.
Microsoft needs to reverse its long decline. And as every Microsoft user knows, the only fix it is a full reboot.
It’s time to give Bill Gates the three-finger salute.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.