Could Ford’s Mulally Run Microsoft?

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Ford Motor Co. (NASDAQ: MSFT) CEO Alan Mulally apparently has taken the lead among the executives the Microsoft Corp. (NASDAQ: MSFT) board favors to replace Steve Ballmer. There are several reasons such an arrangement would not work out. And, some question whether Microsoft can be fixed at all.

Age issues cannot be left aside, even in a politically correct world. Mulally is 68 years old. A turnaround of Microsoft cannot be accomplished in a year or two. Mulally would have to serve well into his 70s. Nothing ages people more than the battering they take under volatile and pressure-packed situations. Even Ballmer looks exhausted much of the time.

The biggest drawback to choosing Mulally to run Microsoft is that the theory that any good executive can turn around any huge public corporation is probably wrong. Those who believe it can be done point to Louis Gerstner Jr. He ran much of American Express Co. (NYSE: AXP), ran all of RJR Nabisco and turned around International Business Machines Corp. (NYSE: IBM). Is it mind-boggling that one man could move so successfully from tobacco to tech? Yes. But Gerstner’s success was unprecedented. The odds are tremendous that it cannot happen again.

Mulally has no experience in large tech. His job at Boeing Co. (NYSE: BA) does not qualify, nor does his job at Ford. There is an anecdote that when Mulally took over Ford he was asked why he was suitable. His answer, the story goes, was that a car has a few hundred thousand parts, and a commercial airplane has six million. Operating systems have none, at least not in any comparison to manufacturing. The “learning curve” to step into Microsoft will be long and hard, even for a senior technology executive. For Mulally it would be several quarters. Microsoft is in no position to allow that kind of time.

The final reason that Mulally would be a questionable choice is the same as for any recruit. Microsoft may have passed the point at which it can be turned around, in any sense that the term applies to a major corporation. Much of the tech world has left it behind. Even one of the great R&D teams and a balance sheet with tens of billions of dollars are not nearly adequate to play catch-up. Not in a world, anyway, that reinvents itself almost by the day. Microsoft might as well promote someone from within the company. At least that person already understands the desperate situation.

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