Bye-bye Ballmer

Contact: Brenon Daly

Lost in the schadenfreude and snark that has accompanied Steve Ballmer’s decision to leave the top spot at Microsoft within a year is one undeniable piece of his legacy: No other tech CEO has accumulated as many assets in key markets as Ballmer.

In addition to the fat-margin franchises that Ballmer inherited, he steered the company on an M&A program that built up offerings around growth markets such as mobility, cloud infrastructure, data warehousing, online communications, digital advertising, collaboration and beyond. During Ballmer’s 13 years running the software giant, Microsoft dropped more than $25bn on its acquisitions.

Of course, there have been M&A missteps. The company has endured big write-offs (aQuantive), gotten burned by targets with dubious accounting (FAST Search & Transfer), drastically overpaid on other acquisitions (Skype), and has seen the period for returns on deals drag beyond a decade (Great Plains Software, Navision).

But in the end, Microsoft has at least brought together a basket of offerings, built on in-house and acquired technology, that makes it relevant in today’s tech market. Want proof of that? Microsoft is actually increasing sales. Granted, it’s only about 5% growth, but at least Microsoft is growing. The same can’t be said for IBM or Oracle or Intel or Dell or Hewlett-Packard. (Oh yeah, and Microsoft is growing while also throwing $20bn to the bottom line each year.)

From our perspective, one of the main challenges for Microsoft’s next CEO will be realizing a return on all of its previous dealmaking. Ballmer’s M&A program has put the pieces in place, but for the most part, they have been underutilized. It’s time for an execution-focused chief executive to wring more value out of the enviable collections of assets that Microsoft has already acquired.

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