Tech industry’s worst CEOs

POOR Steve Ballmer.

No matter what he does, he always reminds me of the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield, whose catchphrase “I don’t get no respect!” might as well have been coined for the Microsoft chief executive.

Forbes this month continued that trend by tagging him as the worst CEO of a large publicly traded American company today and listed him at the top of five chief executives that should have already been fired .

“Not only has he singlehandedly steered Microsoft out of some of the fastest growing and most lucrative tech markets (mobile music, handsets and tablets) but in the process he has sacrificed the growth and profits of not only his company but ‘ecosystem’ companies such as Dell, Hewlett Packard and even Nokia. The reach of his bad leadership has extended far beyond Microsoft when it comes to destroying shareholder value – and jobs,” writes Forbes contributor Adam Hartung.

There’s a statistical basis for Hartung’s verdict. When Ballmer took over from Bill Gates in 2000, Microsoft peaked at $60 a share. “By 2002, it had fallen into the $20s, and has rarely made it back to its current low $30s value.”

Hartung blames Ballmer’s inability to execute new roll-outs on time, and for creating products “so lacking in any enhanced value that they left customers scrambling to find ways to avoid upgrades.”

Windows Vista, which was launched years late and to almost universal derision, springs to mind, but Hartung also faults Ballmer for flubbing company initiatives in music, tablet computing and mobile phones. The company, under his watch, has also failed to introduce products that excite consumers or business users.

“Microsoft is a PC company, nothing more, as demand for PCs shifts to mobile. Years late to market, he has bet the company on Windows 8 – as well as the future of Dell, HP, Nokia and others. An insane bet for any CEO – and one that would have been avoided entirely had the Microsoft Board replaced Mr. Ballmer years ago with a CEO that understands the fast pace of technology shifts and would have kept Microsoft current with market trends,” Hartung concludes.

“Although he’s No. 19 on Forbes list of billionaires, Mr. Ballmer should not be allowed to take such incredible risks with investor money and employee jobs. Best he be retired to enjoy his fortune rather than deprive investors and employees of building theirs.”


The extent of the Windows 8 gamble became clearer this week, when Microsoft announced that it was altogether abandoning the attractive Aero interface that worked nicely in Windows 7, for the flat, boxy mosaic menus designed for tablet and mobile devices. Microsoft may believe that the flat, retro look is the new modern but it’s just plain ugly to me.

Ballmer isn’t the only technology chief executive on the Forbes list.

At No. 5 is John Chambers, who has led Cisco Systems since 1995, a time of rapid growth as companies around the world began installing networks.

“But since then a combination of recessions that cut corporate IT budgets and a market shift to cloud computing has left Cisco scrambling for a strategy, and growth,” Hartung writes. From a high of $70 a share in 2001, the company’s stock now trades at around $17.

“Mr. Chambers appears to have been great at operating Cisco as long as he was in a growth market. But since customers turned to cloud computing and greater use of mobile telephony networks, Cisco has been unable to innovate, launch and grow new markets for cloud storage, services or applications. Mr. Chambers has reorganized the company three times – but it has been much like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Lots of confusion, but no improvement in results.”

“And there is no sign of new life for Cisco – as each earnings call reinforces a company lacking a strategy in a shifting market. If ever there was a need for replacing a stayed-in-the-job too long CEO it would be Cisco.”

Years ago, on separate occasions, I had the opportunity to see Ballmer and Chambers in action. Both had the swagger and bluster you might expect from leaders of top-notch technology companies. Both impressed me, in their own way – Ballmer with his loud, in-your-face enthusiasm, and Chambers with his easy confidence that was enhanced by his cool, southern drawl. Little did I think at the time that either of them would be on a Forbes list of worst CEOs – but this industry’s history is littered with folks who couldn’t see what was coming just around the corner when they were still at the top of their game.

About The Author