Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT ) has a problem. As charming and inviting as Redmond may be most of the year, the world's largest software company can't seem to find someone to replace Steve Ballmer at the helm.
Ballmer surprised the market -- and delighted shareholders -- with his announcement this summer that he will step down in a few months after a suitable replacement is found. Filling Ballmer's shoes -- clogs filled with mercurial zeal, passion, and the custard of confidence -- should have been easy.
This is Microsoft. Who wouldn't want to take on the challenge of taking over the king of operating systems, server tools, and productivity software? The line of interested candidates should've skirted from Redmond all the way down to Key West.
Well, we're now nearly four months into the process, and Mr. Softy's still struggling to find the better Ballmer.
Microsoft didn't do itself any favors by letting it get out that Stephen Elop -- the former Microsoft executive who destroyed Nokia's (NYSE: NOK ) shareholder value during his tenure -- was at the top or near the top of the short list to be its next CEO. He came back into Microsoft's fold after Microsoft mugged Nokia to acquire the Finnish giant's handset business for far less than it was worth when Elop arrived.
Once it became clear that the stock hadn't initially rallied on Ballmer's resignation to settle for an internal hire, the names became more promising. Ford's (NYSE: F ) Alan Mulally floated to the top.
Mulally is a compelling name, and one that has a history with Microsoft. It was Mulally whom Ballmer reportedly consulted with earlier this year in drawing up the organizational restructuring that would transform the software icon into a company focused on devices and services. Ford and Microsoft also teamed up for the SYNC dashboard tech that initially set the automaker ahead of the pack.
Unlike Nokia that nosedived under Elop, Ford has thrived under Mulally. The question became why Mulally would want to go from Mustangs to Microsoft. Ford is riding high as the darling domestic-car maker that didn't need to be bailed out by the government. Sales are growing nicely, and there's no one giving away cars, while Microsoft competes with open-source platforms and free cloud-based applications. Well, the chatter last week was that Mulally is sticking with Ford for at least another year, essentially eliminating him from consideration.
This week's star candidate was Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM ) COO Steve Mollenkopf. Well, it was, until Qualcomm made the savvy move of kicking Mollenkopf upstairs to be its next CEO. He's a well-regarded engineer gaining steam on the operations end of the patent-rich mobile chip behemoth, and it was the right call for Qualcomm to make sure that he didn't get away.
Where does Microsoft turn for its next heaping spoonful of embarrassment? One can argue that Microsoft has never officially announced Elop, Mulally, and Mollenkopf as CEO candidates. However, these names don't leak by accident. They're trial balloons. Unfortunately, the balloons just keep popping. Against this backdrop the clock is ticking. Ballmer isn't in a hurry to leave, but Microsoft's reputation -- and its stock -- will take a hit if it seems as if a capable and interested replacement isn't found soon. The boo birds will come out if there's a forced encore of Ballmer's farewell tour, and nobody wants to see that happen.
So dust off that resume of yours. Who knows? You may be the next leader of Microsoft -- if Edward John Smith doesn't beat you to it first.
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