Microsoft’s story about Steve Ballmer deciding to leave the CEO slot after long and careful consideration depicted the exit as a smooth, long-planned transition. But AllThingsD painted a different picture Sunday night.
Citing sources inside and close to the company, and after careful perusal of Ballmer’s goodbye memo to the troops, the publication concluded that Ballmer had hoped to stay on longer to see through a major reorg he just orchestrated in July, but reconsidered with input from the Microsoft board and company co-founder and chairman Bill Gates.
The specter of a possible proxy fight led by activist shareholder ValueAct may have played a role. Wording of Ballmer’s letter — which included no mention of his long-time friend and colleague Gates — was also flagged. In the memo Ballmer noted there had been a change of plans. He wrote:
“My original thoughts on timing would have had my retirement happen in the middle of our transformation to a devices and services company focused on empowering customers in the activities they value most.”
Several former and one current Microsoft execs told me that there was no way Ballmer would step down unless Gates withdrew his long-time support — a contention that a Microsoft spokesman denied late Sunday night.
Earlier this summer, when asked about the possibility that Ballmer would step down in the face of mounting pressure from disgruntled shareholders, a former Microsoft VP said it would not happen because “Bill has his back.” Late last week, this executive said that must have changed — that the only way Ballmer would be leaving is that if Gates gave the all-clear.
Another former VP who still has tight ties with the company agreed.
“Bill must have flipped the bit on Steve,” said the VP, adding that the recent reshuffling of most major executive roles — Ballmer’s his own — “lined everything up behind Steve.”
The question now is whether this really will be a slow-mo exit — Ballmer has a one-year runway — or something much faster. My bet is on the latter.