Will his company founder without the founder?

What's it like to be 39 years old and have run a spectacularly successful company for 20 years? You can ask Michael Dell this question, as this is exactly what he has done, taking Dell Inc. (NASDAQ:DELL) from a one-man computer company up to one of the world's most important corporations.

What you won't be able to ask Michael Dell is what it will be like to be a 40-year-old having run the same company for 21 years. Dell stepped down today as the CEO of his eponymous company, in favor of 51-year-old Kevin Rollins, who has been groomed for this post since he arrived at the company in 1996. His most recent position at the company was president and chief operating officer. Dell, however, will remain chairman of the board.

T. R. Reid, a Dell spokesman, told Internetnews.com that Michael Dell considers this move a shift rather than a departure. "Michael's thinking is that it is a title change instead of some structural shift in the company's business plan," Reid said.

Let's hope so. Along with Larry Ellison at Oracle (NASDAQ:ORCL) and Bill Gates at Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), Dell is deeply associated with the rise of high technology and further is considered the embodiment of the company he founded. Dell has always been credited with recognizing that his love was technology, not organization, and has surrounded himself with a highly professional management team since the earliest days of his company.

But there is also a bit of a King Lear aspect here. There is always the element of an agency shift when the founder and largest shareholder steps aside. Dell, by loosening his grip on the company, is necessarily giving more control to people who may not have the same sensibilities or motivations he has. Where his compensation is largely in the form of long-term stock appreciation, by virtue of his ownership of an enormous slug of the company, that is not duplicable with professional management. Microsoft, by tapping Steve Ballmer when Gates stepped aside, avoided this -- but other companies, including Gateway (NYSE:GTW), did not.

Although this move was not unanticipated, it's still going to add a little uncertainty to Dell. This may not be a bad thing -- remember, Michael Dell has taken sage advice on steering the company for years. Dell says that this is simply another slide down the continuum. But it's a big one, and now the company must learn to adapt to the fact that the dominant shareholder, the guy whose name is on the buildings, is no longer calling all the shots. Even if it's a smooth change, it's a change nonetheless.

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Bill Mann owns none of the companies mentioned in this article.