Silicon Valley has seen more than its fair share of charismatic CEOs, but for sheer, unadulterated enthusiasm, none could hold a candle to Steve Ballmer.
The outgoing boss of Microsoft delivered a tearful farewell to 13,000 staff last week, during his final Microsoft employee meeting at Seattle’s Key Arena. His address concluded to the sound of Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes’ "I’ve Had the Time of My Life" – which, he confessed, is one of his favourite songs from one of his favourite films, Dirty Dancing.
While Steve Jobs electrified Apple’s corporate events with the near-perfection of his new products, the passionate Ballmer did so with the brute force of his personality. Though his firm may have struggled to keep up in the internet age, Ballmer’s emotional, energetic speeches have turned him into a viral star.
Microsoft announced in August that Ballmer would retire within a year, as soon as the company completes its search for a successor. In his hour-long address last Thursday, Ballmer reportedly reassured Microsoft staff that they would “deliver the next big thing…We will change the world again.”
Ballmer has become known for peppering his corporate appearances with musical interludes, and he did not disappoint. Among the songs played during his farewell appearance were "Can’t Hold Us" by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, and Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”, which had featured in his very first company meeting in 1983. As it played, the 57-year-old jumped around the stage, yelling, “The sound of Microsoft!”
Saying the firm was like a “fourth child” to him (he has three others), Ballmer then implored his audience to, “Soak it in… You work for the greatest company in the world.” The crowd responded with cries of “We love you!”
Tears streaming down his cheeks, his voice breaking, Ballmer insisted: “This isn’t about any one person, it’s about this company. It’s about a company that’s important, that’s forward-thinking, that’s innovative, that’s ethical, that hires great people and lets them lead great lives, that helps people around the world realise their full potential.”
He then ran around the edge of the stage, high-fiving employees like a star quarterback who’d just won his last Super Bowl.
Ballmer has been a major figure at Microsoft ever since founder Bill Gates hired him as its 30th employee, and first business manager, in 1980.
In 2000, he became Gates’ chosen successor as CEO, and at first oversaw a continuing boom in the company’s profitability. His personal wealth was recently estimated at $18bn (£11bn), making him the 21st richest man in the US.
Yet the second half of the last decade also saw Microsoft fall behind in the race for dominance of the mobile sector. On 2 September this year it was announced that Microsoft would swallow up Nokia’s handset and services business for around $7.2bn, in a bid to improve the firm’s future mobile prospects.
Ballmer also used his speech to criticise the company’s competitors, describing Apple as “fashionable” and Amazon as “cheap”. Google was intent on merely “knowing more”, he said, while Microsoft focuses on “doing more”.