It's Time for Steve Ballmer to Take a Pay Cut

If you ask me, Microsoft (NAS: MSFT) CEO Steve Ballmer is doing just fine. Microsoft investors, on the other hand, have little to thank him for after more than a decade on his watch. The following chart starts with his tenure on Jan. 13, 2000.

MSFT Total Return Price Chart
MSFT Total Return Price Chart

MSFT Total Return Price data by YCharts

In fairness, he took office near the height of the tech bubble, so some of the drop is simply related to that bubble's historic pop.

However, over the past three years, his compensation has continued to inch higher.





Base Salary












Source: 2011 proxy statement. Note that the total amount includes other compensation such as 401(k) matching and broad-based benefits.

He didn't receive any stock awards in these years, which is actually per his own request. Ballmer gets paid all in cash at this point, and the board even thinks he's underpaid. He already has plenty of equity, though, so don't lose any sleep on behalf of Ballmer's finances.

His most recent SEC Form 4 was filed back in November 2010, showing that he's the proud owner of 333.3 million shares. When you consider Microsoft's $0.80-per-share annual dividend, that means Ballmer rakes in $266.6 million annually in dividends alone thanks to his hefty stake in the software giant. That also translates into just over $730,000 per day. So yeah, he's doing just fine.

400,000 votes should count for something
According to Forbes, one institutional investor disagrees with the notion that Ballmer deserves more. Granite Investment Advisors portfolio manager Tim Lesko decidedly thinks that Ballmer is overpaid. His firm owns about 400,000 Microsoft shares, and Lesko is calling for Ballmer to take the symbolic voluntary cut to a $1 annual salary.

The $6.2 billion impairment from last week related to its botched purchase of aQuantive is what's triggering Lesko's call to action, but he says this would be more about accountability and would serve as an important gesture to investors. "As an investor, it would feel like something," Lesko said. "Steve Ballmer has had many missteps over the past 10 years. ...Would I be sad to see him held accountable for $6.2 billion in losses? No."

Clearly, this isn't about the money for either party. With $73 billion in trailing-12-month sales, $59.5 billion in cash on the books, and a $250 billion market cap, Microsoft surely sees the impairment as more insult than injury. With two days' worth of dividends exceeding his total annual compensation, Ballmer can afford it.

The portfolio manager says the aQuantive blunder is the latest in a line of major strategic mistakes, including the Zune music player and the total underestimation of Apple's (NAS: AAPL) effect on the smartphone industry when the iPhone launched. Ballmer actually laughed it off, saying it wouldn't gain traction in the enterprise without a hardware keyboard and adding: "Right now we're selling millions and millions and millions of phones a year. Apple is selling zero phones a year. In six months they'll have the most expensive phone by far, ever, in the marketplace. Let's see how the competition goes."

The pressure is now on for Microsoft to prove that its ginormous $8.5 billion acquisition of Skype and hefty $1.2 billion purchase of Yammer will work out. Lesko notes that most shareholders would generally expect some blood from the CEO of a company that just lost $6.2 billion of their money.

"No more years! No more years!"
Lesko's not alone. Last year, Greenlight Capital's David Einhorn famously called for Ballmer's resignation, saying, "His continued presence is the biggest overhang on Microsoft's stock."

Einhorn also cites misguided acquisitions as evidence of Ballmer's ineptitude. Bing has failed to make a meaningful dent in Google's monstrous market-share lead, instead simply cannibalizing its partner, Bing-powered Yahoo! Meanwhile, Apple swooped in and singlehandedly destroyed Windows Mobile (the predecessor to Windows Phone) and netbook sales with the iPhone and iPad, respectively.

Join the club
Steve Jobs famously worked for only $1 per year, and other notable CEO mentions in the club include Facebook's (NAS: FB) Mark Zuckerberg, Hewlett-Packard's Meg Whitman, and Oracle's (NAS: ORCL) Larry Ellison, among others. Zuckerberg's pay cut starts next year, while Whitman's buck has been there since she started last September, and Ellison is simply already so filthy rich that he doesn't know what to do with all that money -- other than to literally buy a Hawaiian island.

Research In Motion (NAS: RIMM) ex-co-CEOs Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis also took one for the team last December when they agreed to work for $1 annually, after reporting a gloomy earnings release with weak outlook on BlackBerry shipments. That move proved to be purely symbolic, as they would step down the very next month and give Thorsten Heins a shot. That single-digit CEO salary that shareholders were looking forward to paying didn't last long, as Heins' salary is a million bucks.

Time for a pink slip
Einhorn and Lesko are both right. Ballmer needs to either step down or take a pay cut. How can you get handed a company that runs a near-monopoly in one of the most important consumer markets that spans the entire planet, and still underperform for more than a decade?

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At the time thisarticle was published Fool contributorEvan Niuowns shares of Apple, but he holds no other position in any company mentioned. Check out hisholdings and a short bio. The Motley Fool owns shares of Microsoft, Facebook, Oracle, Apple, and Google.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of Apple, Google, and Microsoft and creating bull call spread positions in Microsoft and Apple. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.

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