Pity the people who have to find the next chief executive officer of Microsoft Corp. Few are qualified, and fewer seem to want the job. Even so, there are reasons to think that shareholders could do better than Hans Vestberg, the boss of Ericsson AB, who, according to Bloomberg News, is on the short list to succeed Steve Ballmer, the current CEO.
The standard line is that Ballmer is handing a poisoned chalice to whoever succeeds him. This view, which probably is wrong, is based on the notion that Microsoft has been irreparably wounded by its past missteps in mobile technology and is doomed to decline. Ballmer's successor will end up presiding over a graceful descent into irrelevance (if he's lucky) or an ignominious collapse (if he isn't). As if that weren't bad enough, many potential executives might feel incapable of changing Microsoft's strategy without getting second-guessed by Ballmer and Bill Gates, who together are the biggest individual holders of Microsoft stock. No wonder people such as Alan Mulally, head iof Ford Motor Co., declare that they aren't interested.
What's missing from this narrative is a recognition that Microsoft is an extraordinarily successful company. It has a stock market value of more than $300 billion (only a handful of companies are worth more) for a reason. Its profits have tripled during the past 10 years, while an equivalent measure of earnings for all Standard & Poor's 500 Index companies has only doubled. Microsoft also holds about $77 billion in cash and short-term investments, which gives it a lot of firepower to make acquisitions and take risks with new projects.
Microsoft's board has to decide whether Vestberg is capable of managing these resources in a way that will deliver rising returns to shareholders. This isn't an easy question to answer, but one reasonable approach is to see how well he has done at Ericsson, the Swedish telecommunications-network equipment maker he has run since the beginning of 2010. During that time, Ericsson's shares have gained about 18 percent, while the broader OMX Stockholm 30 Index of large Swedish companies gained more than 40 percent. From 2007 to 2009, Vestberg was Ericsson's chief financial officer. During this period the company also lagged behind the broader index, a sharp contrast to the company's performance before 2007:
Pinning the blame for underperformance directly on Vestberg may not be justified. For all we know, things might have been much worse had it not been for his managerial and technical acumen. Even so, I suspect that Microsoft can attract someone better suited to running one of the world's best companies.
(Matthew C. Klein is a writer for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter.)