In a rather subdued, by-the-book Microsoft annual shareholders meeting today, two things stood out: Chairman Bill Gates took to the podium to speak and he choked up at the end, as he talked about this being Steve Ballmer’s last shareholders meeting as CEO of the company.
Gates, who typically lets others do most of the talking during these shareholder meetings, took to the stage today to talk about the board’s search for Microsoft’s next CEO and about the love both he and Ballmer have for the company.
He told shareholders that the board’s search committee — of which he is a member — has interviewed internal and external candidates and that “we’re pleased with the progress.”
Gates did not divulge any news about the search, nor did he give a timeframe for when the board might announce the new CEO.
“It’s a complex role to fill — a lot of different skills, experience and capabilities that we need. It’s a complex global business that the new CEO will have to lead,” he said.
He added that “the person has to have a lot of comfort in leading a highly technical organization and have an ability to work with our top technical talent to seize the opportunities.”
Noting that the meeting “is a milestone for Steve,” Gates thanked Ballmer for his years of leadership at the company and pointed out that, in Microsoft’s 38-year history, there have been only two CEOs: Ballmer and Gates himself.
“Steve and I really appreciated all the joys and challenges that came with being CEO,” he said. “It’s a real privilege to lead the incredibly talented group of employees that we have. It’s a privilege to work on the technology that’s changed the world.”
Gates said he and Ballmer shared two other things as well: “A commitment to make sure that the next CEO is the right person at the right time for the company we both love,” he said, choking up. “And we share a commitment that Microsoft will succeed as a company that makes the world a better place.”
In his turn at the podium, Ballmer, in contrast, did not get very emotional, as he did in his speech at the annual employees’ meeting in September. Rather, Ballmer spent most of the time talking about the “pivotal year” Microsoft has had, which included a companywide reorganization, the purchase of Nokia’s phone business, and the company’s focus on the cloud and on creating “high-value experiences” for users across a “family of devices” from smartphones to phablets to tablets to PCs.
Microsoft is “uniquely positioned to drive and define the next big thing,” he said. “As CEO of Microsoft, and personally as an investor of Microsoft, I’m optimistic…. I’m confident that we have the right strategy in place. We have the financial assets that allow us to take the risks, the bold bets, to invest in new areas that will lead to transformation of how people work and live and economic success for Microsoft.”
Microsoft shareholders voted to approve all the proposals before them, including the reelection of the nine-member board (including Gates and Ballmer).
During the question-and-answer period, one shareholder wondered about the wisdom of acquiring Nokia.
Ballmer said, in part, that “a lot of our past is built on the back of acquisitions. … We should be mindful and thoughtful and cautious, and yet I don’t think we should be fearful, of doing somewhat larger acquisitions” such as that of Nokia.
Another shareholder asked: “Why is the stock price so pitifully stagnant?”
Microsoft Chief Financial Officer Amy Hood said she believes that if Microsoft continues to execute on its strategy, that that will be reflected in the share price.
Ballmer said stock prices are unpredictable and pointed out that the company’s profits had tripled during his tenure as CEO.
Lonnie Lusardo of Seattle, the shareholder who asked that question, said later that he’s been an investor in the company since 1987.
“The company needs a kick in the butt,” he said.
When asked if there was anyone he’d like to see as CEO, he said Ford CEO Alan Mulally — a frequently rumored candidate for the position — would be “a great motivator. Whether he can convert the potential [of Microsoft] into a higher stock price, I don’t know.”
Evelyn Schwerin of Kingston, another shareholder, asked at last year’s annual meeting why she shouldn’t sell her stock.
The answer she received then, she said today, “was baloney.” So she sold her shares — some 400 of them, keeping only 10.
“I’m happy that they are getting a new CEO,” she said. “Everyone’s been touting Mulally. I think he’s great. But I’m not sure if he’s the right person. It should be a person in the industry.”
“I still have hope for Microsoft,” she added. “That’s why I kept 10 shares.”