A billionaire should be able to take a few weeks off in the summer, particularly one who works as religiously as Microsoft Corp. (NASDAQ: MSFT) CEO Steve Ballmer. His net worth has been set as high as $20 billion. Ballmer can even afford not to work, but he wants to hang on to his job, and that seems less and less certain. Based on Microsoft’s problems, Ballmer needs to come up with one or two spectacular announcements or deals by Labor Day. Given all the products launches of the past year, he may have run out of options — other than buying another tech giant
Worth considering is that Ballmer cannot be fired. His close friend Bill Gates is still chairman, and the largest shareholder. As one of the founders, his voice at board meetings likely carries more weight than any other. However, Gates may believe his legacy will be tarnished if Microsoft’s fortunes continue to dive.
Ballmer has done three things of real substance in the past year. He has pushed the company’s Surface RT tablet into the market. He ordered the final release of the supposedly finished version of Windows 8. And he has made what he claims is the largest management reorganization since Gates left the CEO spot.
The $900 million write-off that Microsoft took in the most recent quarter because of Surface inventory should have been enough to label the product a failure. Even Ballmer has admitted the product cannot be revived. “We built a few more devices than we could sell,” admitted Ballmer when referring to the slow Surface RT sales. He even did the unimaginable. He said the Windows 8 was something less than an unqualified success. “We’re not selling as many Windows devices as we want to.” By devices, he meant portable products as well as PCs. In the regard, he did not tell Wall Street anything new. Microsoft has been unable to get Windows onto smartphones, despite its joint venture with Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK).
None of this news about Ballmer’s struggles is new. And neither is the meaninglessness of his reorganization. That leaves him very few choices, and very few divisions of the company to work with. The servers and tools operations is among Microsoft’s most successful, but as a business that sells to enterprises, it cannot change products too fast or too much. The same can probably be said for Office.
Hardware was where Ballmer hoped to expand. Surface, he believed, would sit alongside the successful Xbox franchise. If that did not work. Xbox is still successful. But the competition is too brutal for Microsoft to suddenly flank Sony Corp. (NYSE: SNE).
All of that leaves MSN and Bing. Ballmer has been trying to reinvent Bing for years, in an attempt to catch Google Inc. (NASDAQ: GOOG), without single bit of luck or success.
So, Ballmer’s last stands is M&A. And it is by far the most sensible. He only needs to look at Larry Ellison’s Oracle Corp. (NYSE: ORCL) to see the value of rolling up company after company to build a huge one.
Ballmer has plenty of targets, particularly those that are related to Microsoft’s current businesses. Salesforce.com Inc. (NYSE: CRM) is among them. Ballmer could afford to buy Facebook Inc. (NASDAQ: FB), but it is not for sale. Ballmer’s only real way to transform Microsoft is to swing for the fences. That does not leave him many options other than International Business Machines Corp. (NYSE: IBM) or SAP A.G. (NYSE: SAP). IBM’s market cap is somewhat smaller than Microsoft’s. The notion seems crazy, unless Ballmer’s desperation is taken into account.