Microsoft’s biggest problem is Steve Ballmer, says former exec

Feb 10, 2013, 6:10 PM | Updated: Feb 11, 2013, 9:57 am
Steve Ballmer joined Microsoft in 1980, and became Microsoft's 30th employee. He was the first business manager Bill Gates hired. Ballmer became CEO of Microsoft in January of 2000. (AP file photo)
(AP file photo)

There are the things we know about Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer from YouTube clips of company meetings and product roll-outs.

“He is a very high-strung individual,” says a former company executive, pointing to a raucous company meeting with Ballmer in charge, running around the stage, screaming, “I have four words for you. I love this company.”

There are the things people who work at Microsoft know.

“He walks the hallways sometimes bouncing a basketball in front of him,” a former co-worker says.

Then there are the things employee number 400 at Microsoft knows about the CEO.

“I always got along fine with Steve, but he is not a visionary and he’s not the right person to run the company,” says Joachim Kempin, a former company senior VP.

Kempin admits his new book Resolve and Fortitude: Microsoft’s Secret Power Broker Breaks His Silence is an attempt to “stir things up.”

“I still feel a huge bond with Microsoft. I use their products every day. But, it frustrates me that the company basically has lost so many battles – Google search, Microsoft Bing. The iPod and Zune (Microsoft’s discontinued digital media player.) Look at the iPhone, Apple’s tablet and you go down the list, the Android operating system, Facebook,” says Kempin.

“All of that happened over the last 10, 11, 12 years and you have to question whether there is the right team in Microsoft to conquer the new world.”

Kempin ran Microsoft’s operation in Germany before coming to the U.S. in 1983 and becoming a powerful figure within the company who oversaw all of Microsoft’s product sales to PC manufacturers.

“It was an amazing ride,” he says. “When I started that group we did around $170 million a year. Fifteen years later we did $9 billion a year. The team really excelled, and there were years when that group pulled in more than half the profits of Microsoft.”

In his 20 years with the company, Kempin saw a change in leadership styles.

The early years reminded him of the kind management “you would find in the German military, basically ‘take that hill, and I don’t need to tell you how to do it, you figure it out.’ Later people would say, take that hill and I will tell you how to do it, which gives less freedom in your action and you feel less empowered.”

Wearing a suit and tennis shoes as he described his life now as being an enjoyable one living in West Seattle, but still thinking of Microsoft and wishing the company would “get on track.”

Some would argue, Microsoft doesn’t need advice from someone who left the company a decade ago. They’re doing fine.

For Microsoft’s most recent quarter, the company reported revenues on Jan. 24, 2013 totaling $21.5 billion. It posted earnings per share of 76 cents for the December quarter, beating Wall Street’s expectations by 1 cent. That quarter included the launch of key Microsoft products Windows 8 and the Surface tablet.

“When you just look at revenue and profit Ballmer is doing a good job,” says Kempin. “By every other measure he is taking the company in the wrong direction.”

There is plenty of talent within Microsoft, Kempin says, but Ballmer has a way of “purposefully ousting any executives with potential to wrest him from the CEO seat, “which he has occupied since 2000.

Many of Microsoft’s top tier managers have left the company during Ballmer’s time as CEO.

Richard Belluzzo, credited with launching the Xbox game console, rose to chief operating officer at Microsoft but left after only 14 months in that job. More recently Windows unit Chief Steven Sinofsky left the company last year. Office chief Stephen Elop went to Nokia. Ray Ozzie, the software guru Gates designated as Microsoft’s big-picture thinker, left to start his own project.

Microsoft representatives declined comment about Ballmer, and Kempin’s book.

Kempin adds he “always got along great with Steve” and he’s “surprised” Ballmer hasn’t contacted him since the book came out.

Beyond changing the CEO, Kempin would like to see someone else as a visionary for the company and he suggests turning employees free to be more creative.

“The company spends around $10 billion in research and development every year, but the ideas don’t make it to the market,” says Kempin. “There’s plenty of good stuff in that company, give the people some seed money and let them go.”



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Microsoft’s biggest problem is Steve Ballmer, says former exec