October 02, 2013

Should Bill Gates' 4.5 Percent Share of Microsoft Still Grant Him Special Powers, or is it Time to Move On?


It depends on who you ask. That is the one clear answer to the question posed in our headline. Recently, Bill Gates - who needs no introductions - participated in a fireside chat at a Harvard fundraising event. It was the very same chat where he was recently quoted as saying that the CTRL-ALT-DELETE keystroke sequence "was a mistake." The discussion was in fact enormously interesting, and there is no doubt that Gates is still someone who has an enormous grasp of whatever it is he happens to be interested in.

But therein is the key issue that we believe should and eventually will drive the answer to our headline question. Gates' current passions do not run in line with what Microsoft is up to or needs to be up to these days. Rather it is extremely clear to us that his passions run to the causes that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation chooses to focus on. We've known this for some time but we came away from the Harvard discussion more firmly convinced of it.

Gates not only demonstrated his deep foundation interests but also provided some interesting asides - such as noting that he has become a great believer in multiple vacations for people in their 50s. He still believes that a person's 20s and 30s are for intense work efforts but he's come around - as the rest of us older folks do - to understanding that there is sometimes more to life than intense work once you've reached a certain age. Good!




So then, with that recent background in hand, we can take a look at today's news - that three of the top 20 current investors in Microsoft are currently lobbying the Microsoft board to require Gates to step down from his role as chairman. Sources for this tidbit falls under the "according to people familiar with the matter" scenario and the three actual investors have not been named - or rather the sources have requested that the investor names be kept off the record.

We do know that the three investors collectively hold about 5 percent of Microsoft's outstanding shares - it's a huge number of shares, but that barely trumps the fact that Gates still holds roughly 4.5 percent of the company and is still the single largest individual shareholder. The argument from these shareholders includes the fact that Gates continues to regularly sell off his shares, with a publically available share plan that points to his shares being totally sold off by 2018 (which looks to coincide - perhaps totally coincidentally - with when Ballmer had originally been looking to retire).

While we hardly believe that Microsoft's board would seriously entertain any notion of moving Gates out of the chairman role, it is a question worth considering. It begs the question as well of who exactly would replace him.

The three investors, the sources note, are worried that Gates' current role - a still very powerful position that is not "ceremonial" in any sense of the word - is likely to cause problems with any new CEO with regard to whatever new strategies might otherwise be developed by new leadership. This is an age-old business issue - the old leadership fails to let go, and new leadership is constantly stymied by it. These same investors are apparently also concerned that Gates wields power out of proportion to his declining shareholding. But what chairman of any Fortune 500 company has power based on or relative to his or her share percentage? Leaving aside the likes of Larry Ellison, jeff Bezos and a few others, the answer is...none - so that argument is meaningless.

The real question for us is whether or not Gates retains the passion to "help" drive Microsoft forward. If the answer to that question were yes it would make absolutely no difference what percentage of shares Gates owned. Yes, he would need a strong-willed CEO to interact effectively with him of course - whether chairman or non-chair board director, and we believe the likes of Alan Mulally as CEO would indeed provide it.

There are endless pros and cons to answer the question, but all of them - we leave it to your imagination as to what they would be and please do share your own thoughts in our comments section on this - are trumped by the one single question regarding passion. This is where the real answer lies.

Our own belief is that Gates has actually managed to successfully leave Microsoft behind him. His true passions are now found in the foundation and its causes - and we ourselves are thrilled that Gates has chosen to apply his unique talents to solving the problems the foundation chooses to tackle. This is his best use of his time as far as we can see - in doing so he is also truly stepping up his role in "giving back" literally on a global scale to the world that has made him so successful.

Because of what we believe are these real shifts in passion, we necessarily need to conclude that Gates should indeed give up his chairman role. We are currently at a loss as to who should replace him and that's a question best left for another day. We will say that we are not fans of one person owning the dual CEO and chairman role, though there are plenty of examples to counter that belief. Would Mulally work as CEO and chairman? We're not sure.

In any case, Gates would certainly still retain a powerful board position. We would never choose to let Gates go entirely - the rigorous thought processes he brings to the game need to be kept in-house. But as we believe Gates passions are no longer fully Microsoft-aligned - it’s one key reason Ballmer lasted as long as he did as CEO - the chairmanship needs to go elsewhere. We'll leave it at that for today.

The Harvard video of the fireside chat, by the way, is well worth watching - we've provided it below.




Edited by Alisen Downey



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