Microsoft Chief Financial Officer John Connors, a folksy Montana native who helped engineer the largest stock-dividend payout in history last year, is leaving the company to become...

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Microsoft Chief Financial Officer John Connors, a folksy Montana native who helped engineer the largest stock-dividend payout in history last year, is leaving the company to become a venture capitalist.

Although Microsoft stock is underwhelming Wall Street and Connors has been slashing costs, he’s leaving on a relatively high note.

He took the job five years ago at the start of the downturn and he’s leaving after overseeing dramatic changes in the way Microsoft reports its earnings and shares its wealth.

There was “no precipitating event” that led to the resignation, Connors said. “For me personally the timing’s just real good,” he said.

Connors, 45, said he wants to devote more time to his family, church, politics and philanthropic endeavors after 16 years at Microsoft. He has a wife and four school-aged children.

During the last election, Connors was involved in GOP campaigns and was named to gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi’s transition team.

Connors said he also wants to spend more time working with Northwest companies. He’s joining Ignition Partners, a Bellevue venture-capital firm that includes many former Microsoft colleagues.

Microsoft CFOs

People who held the position since Microsoft went public in 1986.

Frank Gaudette

Mike Brown (initially treasurer, vice president of finance)

Greg Maffei

John Connors

Microsoft will search internally and externally for a replacement, but the position has traditionally been filled from within. Connors noted Microsoft “has a deep bench and a lot of talent.”

Chief Executive Steve Ballmer praised Connors. “John has done an awesome job building a world-class finance organization for Microsoft and leaves behind him a very capable team,” he said in a news release.

With a more flexible schedule ahead, Connors plans to become more active with the University of Washington and his alma mater, the University of Montana. He’d also like to spend more time on a Montana ranch and on a boat he’s rarely used.

In November, Connors reported having 290,145 shares of Microsoft stock now worth $7.8 million.

Connors became CFO five years ago, just before the market plunged and the company was found to have violated U.S. antitrust laws. He had to soothe investors while writing off more than $10 billion in bad investments Microsoft had made in telecommunications companies.

During the past three years, Connors helped Ballmer reorganize the company into seven business units, each with its own financial-reporting team.

They broke ranks with the technology industry and began treating stock options as expenses, then replaced options with stock awards and arranged a complex option buyout plan for employees.

Those moves have “drawn applause” from investors, said Pat McGurn, special counsel at Institutional Shareholder Services, a Rockville, Md., company that advises investors on proxy voting.

“I think shareholders have taken notice that on some of these issues, they’ve taken a less combative approach to the Street and they’ve sought to become more transparent over time in their accounting and their other practices,” he said.

During Connors’ tenure, Microsoft also began issuing stock dividends and finally shared its cash pile with a $32 billion one-time payout last month.

Analysts said Connors’ departure is unlikely to affect the stock’s price.

“I think he was liked by the Street,” said Goldman Sachs’ Rick Sherlund. “It’s disappointing to those of us who have known him.”

A native of Miles City in southeastern Montana, Connors grew up working on ranches, farms, oil rigs and the railroad. His father was a high-school teacher and football and basketball coach, which helped prepare him to work alongside Ballmer and Chairman Bill Gates.

Connors acknowledged it could be a challenging job. “You’ve got to be tough, you’ve got to be able to push back,” he said. But he also saw it as a historic opportunity.

“They’re two of the great businessman in the history of commerce. They’re a phenomenal example to follow; they work harder and set higher expectations for themselves than they do anybody else,” Connors said. “When somebody has achieved so much and continues to strive for more success, that’s pretty remarkable.

“The other thing that is remarkable is their ability to take a long-term view ,” Connors said. “That’s a great lesson for business and a great lesson for life.”

Brier Dudley: 206-515-5687 or