As Ballmer Leaves Microsoft, Will Buffett Pick New CEO?

24/7 Wall St.

Just as Steve Ballmer prepares to depart as CEO of Microsoft Corp. (MSFT), the guessing game over who will take the reigns at the troubled tech giant has already begun. It may be that one of Bill Gate's fellow richest billionaire friends, Warren Buffett, will help him pick a new CEO. The most likely candidate is a board member of Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (BRK-B).

Logically, the first place Gates & Co. would look is at other big tech companies. Unfortunately, almost all the other chief executives are tied to Microsoft's failures, or are founders of their own companies. So, leave out the CEOs of Intel Corp. (INTC), Hewlett-Packard Co. (HPQ) and Dell Inc. (DELL), as if the heads of HP and Dell were not already dealing with their own problems. Other successful tech companies might include Oracle Corp.'s (ORCL) CEO and founder Larry Ellison, who is nearly as wealthy as Gates, or Marc Benioff, the founder and CEO of Salesforce.com Inc. (CRM). Neither would ever abandon their successes for the uncertainty of Microsoft.

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Microsoft could also turn to someone below the CEO level at several tech companies, which might be a reasonable option.

Ralph de la Vega, the CEO of AT&T Mobility, the wireless arm of AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) is considered an expert in one business that Microsoft eagerly wants to control. Microsoft tried to buy into the mobile operating systems and apps business through its venture with Nokia Corp. (NOK). The deal has floundered as the handset company has lost share to Apple Inc. (AAPL) and Samsung.

Apple also has several executives who might run Microsoft. The most widely respected among them is Jonathan Ive. The senior vice president of design was often considered Steve Jobs' right hand as the company built the iPhone and iPad. But Ive has never run a large company, and as a creative engineer is not suited to take on the responsibility.

That leaves second-tier executives from a number of global tech companies. From the standpoint of the market, such a choice would be inadequate.

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What Microsoft could do is what International Business Machines Corp. (IBM) did when it reached a critical stage of failure. It brought on a gifted executive who had little to no tech experience. Lou Gerstner was CEO of RJR Nabisco and a top executive at American Express Co. (AXP). Before that, he was an executive at McKinsey & Co., a breeding ground for big company CEOs. Gerstner took over at Big Blue in 1993, and by the time he left in 2002 , he returned IBM to its place as one of the most highly regarded technology companies in the world.

According to John Thompson, Microsoft's lead independent director, the new CEO will need to focus on new technologies and rely less on the Window’s operating system. "The board is committed to the effective transformation of Microsoft to a successful devices and services company.”

For that reason alone, the most logical choice to replace Ballmer might be Steve Burke, CEO of NBCUniversal, a division of Comcast Corp. (CMCSA). Prior to his current job, Burke ran the cable division of Comcast, the largest wired broadband distribution system in the country.

Comcast is in the broadband distribution business, but it is also in the content business and the hardware business. All of these are critical to Microsoft’s future, organized around its gaming platform and new mobile devices and operating systems. Burke’s experience would compliment these goals well. He is also what Wall Street wants most -- a skilled great executive and an outsider.

Perhaps most important for Burke, he sits on the board of Berkshire Hathaway -- a position from which one of Gates’ closest friends could hand pick the next CEO. Warren Buffett, who has a decades-long relationship with Gates, has committed nearly all of his fortune to the Gates Foundation.

Buffett also has an excellent track record for helping companies in trouble. He has rescued many large companies before, including Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS), Salomon Bros., and the Washington Post. He also financed the acquisition of ABC by Capital Cities (the company was later acquired by Disney).

Gates can make one call to Buffett to get the shortlist for CEO candidates at Microsoft. From Buffett's standpoint, no one has a resume, or proven skills that could top Steve Burke.

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