NEW YORK and SEATTLE -- Three of the top 20 investors in Microsoft are lobbying the board to press for Bill Gates to step down as chairman of the software company he co-founded 38 years ago, according to people familiar with matter.
While Microsoft (MSFT) chief executive Steve Ballmer has been under pressure for years to improve the company's performance and share price, this appears to be the first time that major shareholders are taking aim at Gates, who remains one of the most respected and influential figures in technology.
A representative for Microsoft declined to comment on Tuesday.
There is no indication that Microsoft's board would heed the wishes of the three investors, who collectively hold more than 5 percent of the company's stock, according to the sources. They requested the identity of the investors be kept anonymous because the discussions were private.
Gates owns about 4.5 percent of the $277 billion company and is its largest individual shareholder.
The three investors are concerned that Gates' role as chairman effectively blocks the adoption of new strategies and would limit the power of a new chief executive to make substantial changes. In particular, they point to Gates' role on the special committee searching for Ballmer's successor.
They are also worried that Gates -- who spends most of his time on his philanthropic foundation -- wields power out of proportion to his declining shareholding.
Gates, who owned 49 percent of Microsoft before it went public in 1986, sells about 80 million Microsoft shares a year under a pre-set plan, which if continued would leave him with no financial stake in the company by 2018.
%VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%He lowered his profile at Microsoft after he handed the CEO role to Ballmer in 2000, giving up his day-to-day work there in 2008 to focus on the $38 billion Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
In August, Ballmer said he would retire within 12 months, amid pressure from activist fund manager ValueAct Capital Management.
Microsoft is now looking for a new CEO, though its board has said Ballmer's strategy will go forward. He has focused on making devices, such as the Surface tablet and Xbox gaming console, and turning key software into services provided over the Internet. Some investors say that a new chief should not be bound by that strategy.
News that some investors were pushing for Gates' ouster as chairman provoked mixed reactions from other shareholders.
"This is long overdue," said Todd Lowenstein, a portfolio manager at HighMark Capital Management, which owns Microsoft shares. "Replacing the old guard with some fresh eyes can provide the oxygen needed to properly evaluate their corporate strategy."
Kim Caughey Forrest, senior analyst at Fort Pitt Capital Group, suggested now was not the time for Microsoft to ditch Gates, and that he could even play a larger role.
"I've thought that the company has been missing a technology visionary," she said. "Bill [Gates] would fit the bill."
Microsoft is still one of the world's most valuable technology companies, making a net profit of $22 billion last fiscal year. But its core Windows computing operating system, and to a lesser extent the Office software suite, are under pressure from the decline in personal computers as smartphones and tablets grow more popular.
Shares of Microsoft have been essentially static for a decade, and the company has lost ground to Apple (AAPL) and Google (GOOG) in the move toward mobile computing.
One of the sources said Gates was one of the technology industry's greatest pioneers, but the investors felt he was more effective as chief executive than as chairman.
The 20 Most Valuable Brands In The World
Microsoft Investors Push for Chairman Gates to Step Down
Brand Value: $27.8 billion
Percent Change v. 2012: 34%
What Happened: MasterCard's rank flew up nine spots this year to the 20th most valuable brand in the world, and Millward Brown VP Oscar Yuan attributes that ascent to "the growth of mobile technology." As consumers up their online shopping habits, brands like Mastercard and Visa reap the rewards for offering noncash payment methods.
Brand Value: $34.36 billion
Percent Change v. 2012: 34%
What Happened: "They're really into the big data," Yuan explained of the German tech brand, "So [the increase in value] is reflective of a consistent storyline: The growth of mobile shopping." SAP has the big data solutions enterprise companies need.
Brand Value: $36.2 billion
Percent Change v. 2012: 5%
What Happened: Walmart, however, has mastered the art of brick and mortar shopping. "You can't buy milk online," Yuan said. The retail giant has a large and loyal consumer base that is constantly growing - even internationally.
Brand Value: $39.7
Percent Change v. 2012: -8%
What Happened: Vodafone's 8% drop in value can be attributed to O2 and Orange's recent success. But at almost $40 billion, it is still one of the largest mobile carriers in the UK.
Brand Value: $41.1 billion
Percent Change v. 2012: -1%
What Happened: While Americans might have never heard of the Industrial & Commercial Bank of China, Yuan explains that in its home country, "the logo is ubiquitous." ICBC is the first of two Chinese brands in the top 20, a number which is largely due to the countries growing middle class.
Brand Value: $42.7 billion
Percent Change v. 2012: 15%
What Happened: "I think a lot of the growth is really tied to several consumer trends - and I'm talking about the need for consumers to shop online mobile devices," Yuan told BI. Consumers need to get the products they bought on the internet somehow, and that's where UPS comes in.
Brand Value: $45.7 billion
Percent Change v. 2012: 34%
What Happened: It's almost impossible for brick and mortar shops to compete with Amazon's wide selection, low prices, and mastery of the mobile marketplace - easily allowing consumers to buy anything from anywhere on their phone or tablet. Recent acquisitions of Audible.com and Goodreads also show the company's determination to dominate all aspects of mobile book consumption and sharing.
"There's no stopping amazon as they go international," Yuan said."
Brand Value: $47.7 billion
Percent Change v. 2012: 20%
What Happened: After acquiring Wachovia in 2008, Wells Fargo successfully expanded from a California-based bank to a national name. Coming from California also helped Well's Fargo's image with consumers considering that it was one of the few banks to remain unscathed during the financial crisis. "It also started a major rebranding strategy expansion," Yuan said.
Brand Value: $53 billion
Percent Change v. 2012: 8%
What Happened: Verizon got a boost after Apple opened its services to carriers other than just AT&T. While Verizon and AT&T's rivalry heats up, Yuan predicts that the competition will up both brands' game. "As data devices continues to proliferate, we will continue to see Verizon do well," he said.
Brand Value: $55.3 billion
Percent Change v. 2012: 21%
What Happened: "GE ... continued to be one of the most well respected consumer and industrial brands in the world," Yuan said. And the public is starting to see that it makes more than just light bulbs. General Electric has dedicated major marketing dollars to making sure that consumers know it produces everything from airplane engines to wind turbines to medical equipment. Hammering in its dedication to innovation, a recent ad campaign even enlisted the help of famous robots.
"In terms of B2B, GE is one of the most well respected brands," Yuan continued, citing that it was often used in business school case studies.
Brand Value: $55.4 billion
Percent Change v. 2012: 18%
What Happened: China Mobile is the largest mobile carrier and brand in China, so it's a no-brainer that it's one of the most valuable brands in the world. "There are more mobile phone subscribers in China than in the U.S.," Yuan said.
Brand Value: $56 billion
Percent Change v. 2012: 46%
What Happened: A key way to bolster global presence is to sponsor the Olympics. But that's not the only thing that upped Visa's brand value so drastically. As one of the most trusted names in non-cash payments, Visa has gained clout in the world of online shopping and mobile payments.
Brand Value: $69.4 billion
Percent Change v. 2012: -6%
What Happened: Marlboro is a top 10 regular, which goes to show that even though smoking is restricted in the U.S. doesn't mean that the rest of the world has laid off the habit. "Marlboro has consistently invested in the brand ever since its inception," Yuan said. "The rugged cowboy is very strong and consistent globally."
To put it another way, "about 25% of world's population are smokers, and they use it 5 to 10 times a day. I don't drink 10 bottles of water a day." That's getting your brand out there.
Brand Value: $69.8 billion
Percent Change v. 2012: -9%
What Happened: As a $70 billion brand, Microsoft is in great shape even in spite of a 9% value decrease. Microsoft is a powerhouse and has a reputation as one of the strongest tech brands in the business. But, Yuan notes, "with consumers, there's confusion as to where Microsoft fits." The company's fortune is largely tied with the PC business, but it has emerged on the mobile scene with the Surface and other devices. The company went through a major rebranding in the summer of 2012 to stay relevant.
Brand Value: $75.5 billion
Percent Change v. 2012: 10%
What Happened: AT&T is another company to gain value due to the increasing U.S. consumption of mobile products. For a long time, the service provider had an exclusive deal with the iPhone, so it became synonymous with the new technology. What's really interesting, however, is that even when Apple opened the iPhone up to Samsung and T-Mobile, AT&T's value didn't go down.
Brand Value: $78.4
Percent Change v. 2012: 6%
What Happened: "What's consistently impressive about Coca-Cola is its ability to innovate," Yuan said. "People think that soda consumption is declining, but Coke is turning the business on its head." For example, this year Coca-Cola released a series of freestyle machines which allows consumers and retailers to mix their own flavors of the soda syrup to make their own individual Coca-Cola. The company is constantly innovating and staying fresh.
Brand Value: $90.3 billion
Percent Change v. 2012: -5%
What Happened: Yuan noted that one of McDonald's gifts was the ability to listen to consumers' sentiments and adapt, particularly to growing health concerns. "It has come out with a much healthier menu with apple slices, oatmeal, and a Chicken McWrap which has done well," he said.
McDonald's is also gaining a stronghold in the coffee space, which should be an interesting new endeavor to follow.
Brand Value: $112.5 billion
Percent Change v. 2012: -3%
What Happened: At $112.5 billion, IBM's three percent value decrease is not a substantial figure. IBM is known as a company that consistently delivers year after year, Yuan told BI. And it is particularly hailed in the B2B sphere.
Yuan also noted that its Ogilvy-made "Smarter Planet" campaign, in which the company explained its plans to help clients innovate and make the world a better place, inspired consumers to believe in the brand.
Brand Value: $113.7 billion
Percent Change v. 2012: 5%
What Happened: Google has effectively taught consumers that it is more than just a search-based company. With maps, mail, shopping, and more, Google is integrated into everyone's lives. The company also made recent headlines about its new contribution to the hardware world in the form of Google Glass. "It will be interesting to see how Google Glass will contribute to the brand value, but now it's too soon to tell," Yuan said.
Brand Value: $185 billion
Percent Change v. 2012: 1%
What Happened: In spite of harsh Wall Street analysis and media speculation regarding Tim Cook's leadership capabilities, Apple continues to be a strong brand in the eyes of consumers - a major value measurement for Millward Brown. "Despite what the press says and stock market says," Yuan noted, "Apple in the eyes of the consumers is the gold standard."
In the last eight years, Apple's value has increased 1,045% - only topped by Subway's meteoric 5,145% rise. (Although Subway still hasn't broken the top 20.)
Those companies are constantly innovating to stay on the top.[Those companies are constantly innovating to stay on the top.]The gay pride Oreo, from Kraft's Facebook page.