Ford’s Mulally Seen as Contender to Run Microsoft

DETROIT (Detroit Free Press/MCT) —

Ford Motor Co. CEO Alan Mulally remains on Microsoft Corp.’s short list of CEO candidates, according to a growing number of media reports and analyst comments.

But industry watchers are divided as to whether the software giant will offer Mulally the job, whether the 68-year-old would take it and whether it would happen as early as this year even though Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has said he would stay until next August if needed.

The Microsoft board is said to be weighing the advantages of an experienced turnaround leader against a younger person more rooted in the tech world. There have been some reports that the Redmond, Wash.-based company is considering a co-CEO scenario until a restructuring and the assimilation of about 30,000 Nokia employees is complete.

Some vocal shareholders have argued for a veteran CEO like Mulally. One hedge fund manager has gone so far as to call for founder Bill Gates to leave the board. Both Gates and Ballmer are on the slate to return as board members at Microsoft’s annual shareholders meeting Nov. 19.

While Microsoft remains profitable, the uncertainty is creating some urgency to name a successor by year’s end.

Speculation ramped up again this week, with media reports citing people familiar with the search as saying the pool of candidates has been whittled down from about 40 to a more manageable list of five outsiders and at least three internal names.

Ford spokesman Jay Cooney said Friday the automaker does not comment on speculation, and there has been “no change from what we announced last November” about Mulally’s commitment to serve Ford through 2014. Mulally no longer has a formal contract with Ford.

Many say the leading candidate is former Nokia CEO Stephen Elop. Among the internal candidates are Tony Bates, who was CEO of Skype and now heads Microsoft’s business development, and Satya Nadella, head of the cloud and enterprise group.

Microsoft analyst Rick Sherlund, of investment bank Nomura, thinks Mulally could be named a co-CEO or Gates might step in to help him develop new products. “We think it likely that Alan Mulally is the new CEO by December,” he said in a note to investors this week.

Sherlund lists other top candidates as Boeing CEO James McNerney and Tyco chairman Edward Breen, although other analysts have put less credence in these choices. Sherlund expects an outside candidate to be chosen.

The speculation about Mulally refuses to die. During Ford’s earnings call last month, he hesitated when asked whether he has spoken to anyone at Microsoft. Then he repeated that he has not changed his plan to serve at Ford.

Mulally still has a home in the Seattle area from his days working for Boeing.

Chief Operating Officer Mark Fields has taken over day-to-day operations at Ford with a strong team that includes Joe Hinrichs, president of the Americas, Chief Financial Officer Bob Shanks and Raj Nair, who oversees global product development.

That has freed Mulally to focus on tasks such as a recent tour of Asia to promote the Ford Transit Connect as a global taxi.

In some respects, Mulally’s ambassadorial duties mirror those of Executive Chairman Bill Ford, who also discusses future mobility and how Ford’s future vehicles will address them.

Mulally has kept a relatively low public profile this year, with only a handful of appearances since the North American International Auto Show in January.

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