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Jeff Raikes, the Microsoft insider who guided the world’s biggest philanthropy through both a recession and a period of major growth, announced Tuesday he is stepping down as CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The 55-year-old Raikes, who joined the foundation in 2008, said it was always his intention to stay for five years.

“I’ve had one heck of a five years,” he said in an interview.

During his tenure, the foundation’s annual grants increased from $2 billion in 2007 to $3.4 billion last year. Employment at the Seattle-based foundation swelled from fewer than 700 to 1,150.

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But soon after Raikes came on board, the value of the foundation’s endowment plummeted as the stock market collapsed.

Bolstered by an influx of cash from billionaire Warren Buffett, the foundation actually increased the amount of money it paid out and its endowment has since rebounded to $38.3 billion.

“The foundation is in the best shape that it’s ever been in thanks to Jeff,” Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates said in a statement. “He has successfully managed the organization through a period of significant growth, built a phenomenal leadership team, and set us on a great path programmatically.”

Raikes will stay on at The Gates Foundation until a new CEO is hired.

A 27-year Microsoft veteran, Raikes has been mentioned as a possible replacement for outgoing CEO Steve Ballmer, but he said that’s not in the cards. “I am not a candidate, and would not be a candidate,” he said.

Family foundation

Instead, he and his wife, Tricia, plan to “significantly scale up” their own foundation’s work on education and programs for at-risk youth. The Raikes Foundation is headquartered in Seattle, near Gas Works Park.

Raikes’ selection to lead the Gates Foundation raised eyebrows because of his lack of experience in global development and health.

But Raikes had something no other candidate applying for the job could offer: a longstanding working relationship with Gates, whose intellectual capacity is sometimes matched by his demanding and acerbic management style.

Raikes, who ran several Microsoft divisions successfully over the years — including the profitable Office group — had Gates’ trust.

That was key as Raikes worked to overhaul the management structure of the Gates Foundation, which had become increasingly complex as it grew rapidly.

A year after joining the foundation, Raikes posted a management doctrine for the organization on its internal website, calling for “decision-making hygiene.”

He streamlined the way strategies are developed, empowering individuals to take charge, even if it meant not achieving wide consensus.

Raikes was able to pull it off, in part, because he’s not the intense, brusque leader that Gates is.

Farm boy

Raised on a Nebraska farm, Raikes has a Midwest charm that has helped him navigate strategic and managerial minefields. He’s able to mock himself and put others at ease.

At Microsoft, he often made videos to pump up the sales force, including rapping as a paramilitary Guardian Angel in a parody of Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” in the 1990s. (The Justice Department cited the lyrics from that video in its landmark antitrust case against Microsoft in 1998, in which Raikes rapped: “Netscape pollution must be eradicated.”)

And when Raikes met with poor farmers in rural Africa and Asia, he often talked with them about his experience with crops and livestock in Nebraska.

One of his first steps at the foundation was to refocus on core programs, like polio eradication, malaria, vaccine delivery and help for subsistence farmers. “My view is that in order for us to be most successful, we had to be clear in our priorities,” he said.

Raikes helped oversee the foundation’s move from multiple, cramped buildings in the South Lake Union neighborhood to its elegant new headquarters near Seattle Center that is fast becoming a tourist attraction.

He also is credited with breaking down the divisions between the foundation’s global-health and global-development teams.

“At the end of the day, we’re not just trying to get a child vaccinated for pneumonia or help a mother with nutrition,” Raikes said. “We’re trying to help them improve their lives … so it’s important to have a comprehensive approach.”

Lisa Cohen, executive director of the Seattle-based Washington Global Health Alliance, said she sees the difference when she visits the foundation. “People know what’s going on with each other more, in a very positive way,” she said.

In many ways, though, Raikes’ successor is likely to be even more influential, said Dr. James Kublin, executive director of the HIV Vaccine Trials Network based at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

The Gates Foundation funded construction of a research center in South Africa where vaccines will be tested.

“When you have an organization that is undergoing such a dramatic change due to its growth, it’s hard to differentiate what is occurring as a result of that growth from what is occurring as the result of the leadership that happens to be there,” Kublin said. But now that the foundation’s growth appears to be tapering off, the next CEO is likely to set the stage for the future.

Personally, Raikes said he most cherishes his experiences traveling in Africa, India and Asia on the foundation’s behalf. On his first trip to Kenya, he spoke with a farm couple who supported a family of eight with their 5-acre plot.

Through a Gates-funded program to boost yield, they were growing more than enough food — which allowed them to sell two cows to finance their eldest daughter’s education.

“That is an incredibly powerful story that I will always carry with me,” Raikes said.

Sandi Doughton at: 206-464-2491 or

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