By Bill Rigby
BELLEVUE, Wash. (Reuters) - Former Microsoft Corp (MSFT.O) Chief Executive Steve Ballmer and civil rights activist Jesse Jackson livened up the technology company's annual shareholder meeting on Wednesday, grabbing the spotlight from the current leaders on stage.
Ballmer, who retired as CEO in February but is still the company's biggest individual shareholder, sat next to Jackson in the second row of the Meydenbauer Center auditorium, packed with about 400 shareholders. He chatted warmly with Jackson before and after the meeting, surrounded by well-wishers and photographers.
The famously loud Ballmer, who had several clashes with the board in his 14 years as CEO, applauded several times but was not always impressed with responses from the stage.
"That last answer sucked!" Ballmer whispered to an acquaintance, quite loudly, immediately after the meeting ended, referring to a roundabout reply by Chief Financial Officer Amy Hood.
A shareholder had asked at what price Microsoft would consider not buying back its own shares, a question on many investors' minds after the stock has risen 82 percent over the past two years to 14-year highs.
"I generally believe that our ability to grow is really only limited by our own imagination, so I tend to think the stock price over time reflects our ability to execute on that broad dream," Hood answered, dodging the direct question but effectively signaling that the shares should keep rising as long as Microsoft achieves its goals.
"Well said," new CEO Satya Nadella chimed in.
Ballmer, who stepped down from Microsoft's board in August to focus on his $2 billion purchase of the NBA's Los Angeles Clippers, is dependent on his 4 percent stake in Microsoft for the bulk of his estimated $23 billion fortune, and therefore is sensitive to the price of his shares.
But he did not ask any questions publicly at the meeting.
"As a block shareholder, the company regularly reaches out. I didn't need to use the time today," Ballmer said in an interview after the meeting.
Jackson, who met with Nadella this week, asked the company to step up its efforts to create a more diverse workforce. According to the company's latest data, its more than 100,000-strong workforce is 71 percent male and 61 percent Caucasian.
Nadella, who is Indian-born, and Chairman John Thompson, who is African-American, assured Jackson the issue was a priority for Microsoft.
(Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Richard Chang)