For once, it was Bill Gates who was the emotional one, not Steve Ballmer.
In an otherwise routine annual shareholders meeting Tuesday, the Microsoft chairman choked up talking about how this was the last such meeting for Ballmer as CEO of Microsoft and how much the two longtime friends love the company.
It’s been a series of “lasts” lately for Ballmer, who announced in August that he would be retiring once his successor has been chosen — something he expected to happen within 12 months of that time.
During his last annual employees meeting in September, Ballmer openly wept while telling employees gathered at KeyArena that “you’ve made this the time of my life,” and the song of the same name played in the background.
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In contrast, at Tuesday’s meeting at Meydenbauer Center, Ballmer seemed contained. There were flashes of the usual Ballmer bluster and enthusiasm, but he left the emotion this time to Gates, his friend dating back to their Harvard days.
Noting that the meeting “is a milestone for Steve,” Gates thanked Ballmer for his 33 years of leadership at the company, 13 of them as CEO. He pointed out that, unusual for a large corporation, there have been only two CEOs in Microsoft’s 38-year history: 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 we have. It’s a privilege to work on the technology that’s changed the world.”
Gates choked up when talking about two other things that he and Ballmer share: “We’ve got a commitment to make sure that the next CEO is the right person for the right time for the company we both love. And we share a commitment that Microsoft will succeed as a company that makes the world a better place.”
Though brief, the speech from the podium was unusual in that Gates typically lets others do most of the talking during the shareholders meeting.
This time, he also spoke of the board’s search for a new CEO.
He told shareholders that the board’s search committee — of which he is a member — has interviewed a number of 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 time frame 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,” he said. “It’s a complex global business that the new CEO will have to lead.”
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.”
When Ballmer came to the podium, he spent most of the time talking about the “pivotal year” Microsoft has had, including a companywide reorganization and the $7.2 billion purchase of Nokia’s phone business.
Nokia shareholders on Tuesday voted to approve the deal.
Ballmer also discussed Microsoft’s strategy for growth: concentrating on the cloud and on creating “high-value experiences” for users across a “family of devices,” from smartphones 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,” he said. “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, though, seemed less interested in thank-yous, goodbyes and strategies for the future than they were in the stock price and dividends.
They voted to approve all the proposals before them, including the re-election of the nine-member board (Gates and Ballmer among them).
During the question-and-answer period, one shareholder urged the board to “stop those (stock) buybacks and just give us the money in dividends.”
Another 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 its strategy, 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.”
Microsoft shares closed Tuesday at $36.74, down 18 cents.
Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @janettu.