Despite being Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) biggest individual shareholder, former CEO Steve Ballmer has somewhat distanced himself from the company.
After he was forced out of office (he technically resigned) Ballmer stayed on the company's board for another six months. He stepped down shortly after he bought the Los Angeles Clipper National Basketball Association team in a letter to his replacement Satya Nadella. In that missive, he expressed his confidence in the company's management and noted that he was its biggest shareholder a position he expects "to continue holding that position for the foreseeable future."
Basically, he bowed out gracefully, with kind words for Nadella, some fond memories of his time at the company, and a plausible excuse as to why he was stepping down.
Given my confidence and the multitude of new commitments I am taking on now, I think it would be impractical for me to continue to serve on the board, and it is best for me to move off. The fall will be hectic between teaching a new class and the start of the NBA season so my departure from the board is effective immediately.
That letter was released in August 2014 and since then Ballmer has mostly been silent about the company he spent 34 years at. He did pop up in the crowd at the company's December 2015 annual shareholders meeting where he gave a Bloomberg reporter some quotes that were critical of a change the company made to how it reports cloud numbers, but those remarks were on a technical point and a pointed rebuke of Nadella.
The former CEO and Clipper owner, however, broke his silence on his former company and its new boss in an extensive interview with Business Insider. He was clearly trying to be diplomatic, but he was not pulling his punches.
What did Ballmer have to say?
The longtime Microsoft employee, board member, and CEO made it clear that he no longer worked at the company and now viewed things solely as an investor. He said that he thought about how as an outsider he might "add value or not add value," but noted that it was not something he spent the majority of his time on.
Ballmer did tell BI that he spoke to the company's CFO Amy Hood each quarter and acknowledged meeting with Nadella four or five times a year "to brainstorm something or just as a shareholder, we'll sit down and chat." But, he was clear to point out, because he's not a board member or an employee, the company cannot share any information with him that is not shared with other shareholders.
In the interview Ballmer tried hard to overlay his comments with a layer of clear support for Nadella and the current team, but he did have some points of concern. His biggest problem was an expanded version of what he told Bloomberg.
"As a shareholder I have expressed my frustration with not getting more information about revenue and margins from the cloud," he said.
He was also critical about Microsoft's ongoing to failure to come up with a successful direction for its mobile business and he was not happy the company pivoted from the plans he had set in motion.
"If you're going to be mobile-first, cloud-first you really do need to have a sense of what you're doing in mobile devices," he told BI. "I had put the company on a path. The board as I was leaving took the company on a path by buying Nokia, they kind of went ahead with that after I told them I was going to go."
But, even when expressing clear frustration Ballmer noted that Nadella had changed direction and said, "He needs to have a clear path forward. But I'm sure he'll get there."
What he said about Nadella
While Ballmer has somewhat distanced himself from his former employer and he seems willing to offer some mild criticisms, he has largely been supportive of his replacement. In fact, one of his comments to BI suggested he fully understands that even if he wanted to move the company toward its current direction he may not have been able to.
"In terms of the public positioning of the company, Satya's done a very good job," Ballmer said.
He sort of pivoted in a way that I don't think would have been possible for me to do even if I'd seen it that way, to really talk about this mobile-first, cloud-first world. He's right. You might say it's obvious, but it was an important perception point. I think he's done a brilliant job on that, which is outstanding.
Ballmer was also supportive of Nadella making a number of Microsoft products and making them cross-platform compatible -- something he was at least perceived as being against when he led the company.
Ballmer gets it right
As a major shareholder Ballmer has a right to criticize the company, but it probably would not be a constructive path to take. In this Business Insider interview and in his history of mostly saying nothing, the former CEO has walked a difficult line well.
Ballmer correctly wants to protect his own legacy, but he does not want to come off as bitter about his ousting. Instead he seems gracious and supportive of Nadella. The Clippers owner is in a difficult position. If he never comments then his silence actually may transmit disapproval. If he speaks out too much or too openly he risks undermining his replacement and hurting his stock holdings.
It's smart of Ballmer to be supportive in general and critical on a fairly wonky reporting issue. It shows that he's engaged, but not carrying a grudge. The former boss still casts a shadow over his old company and that's not a bad thing. His interest and attention can keep the new team honest and if something does go wrong, Ballmer could be a powerful force for shareholders.