As it named longtime company insider Satya Nadella its new CEO on Tuesday, Microsoft made a second, less-noticed appointment that will also be key to its transition from a world dominated by PCs to one ruled by tablets and smartphones.
To replace the legendary Bill Gates as chairman, the company tapped John Thompson, a former CEO of Symantec who grew up in South Florida and will become only the second chairman in Microsoft’s history.
Thompson's new role, analysts and industry experts said, is a signal that the company hopes to help reinvigorate its sluggish business by injecting some of Silicon Valley's cutting-edge innovation.
“Thompson is a very well and deeply respected guy and his experience, plus his connections with the tech ecosystem in the Valley and elsewhere, will be invaluable for Satya,” said John Connors, Microsoft's chief financial officer from 1999 to 2005, who now is a managing partner with Ignition Ventures.
While a CEO generally handles a corporation’s daily operation, a chairman, which is generally not a full-time job, has considerable responsibility because the board he or she heads oversees the top executives, including the CEO, and has ultimate responsibility for the company’s performance.
Industry experts view the leadership change as a determined effort by the Redmond, Wash., company’s board to move more quickly into mobile devices and other growing markets so the company can regain its former stature. Microsoft has been hard-hit by the declining personal-computer market, which depends largely on its software.
And for Thompson — a Microsoft board member who ran Silicon Valley-based security company Symantec for a decade and is now CEO of San Jose-based software company Virtual Instruments — being handed the chairmanship represents a crowning achievement in his long and lustrous career.
“This is the capstone, the cherry on top,” said technology analyst Charles King. “I don’t know where you go after this. He's a good man and a very able leader, and he should be exactly what Microsoft needs at this time.”
Other analysts said Microsoft’s board is eager to borrow ideas from Silicon Valley and that Thompson is the perfect person to help it do that.
“They are going straight to a core Silicon Valley executive to be chairman, and I think part of that speaks to where the technology trend is going in terms of mobile,” said FBR Capital Markets analyst Daniel Ives. Noting that Thompson headed Microsoft’s search for a new CEO, Ives added that it’s likely Thompson will be heavily involved in making sure the company “is ready for this next phase of growth.”
Microsoft officials said Thompson was not available for interviews. But in a video on the company’s website, he addressed a stockholder concern that Microsoft hasn't been performing up to expectations.
“As part of my new role,” he said, “one of my key contributions, I hope, will be to engage with shareholders and keep focused on how together we can bring great innovation to the market and drive strong, long-term shareholder value.”
Thompson, one of the few African-American CEOs in technology, was raised in West Palm Beach by a teacher and a postal worker. He played clarinet and saxophone in school, earning a band scholarship that sent him to college in Missouri. But he wanted to study business, telling interviewers later that he noticed the most successful adults he knew in the African-American community were small-business owners. He transferred to Florida A&M, graduating in 1971 with a bachelor’s in business.