The Microsoft millionaires

MICROSOFT IS perhaps the classic case of a company balancing low wages with the promise of riches to come from stock options.

Bill Gates, the founder of the Washington-based software provider which recently usurped General Electric as the world's largest company by market capitalisation, has been famously parsimonious about wages - but increasingly willing to retain key staff through options and other incentives.

According to Michael Cusumano and Richard Selby's book Microsoft Secrets, overall compensation has been generous in the 12 years since the company came to the market due to the steady rise in the shares.

An employee buying $1,000 worth of stock when the company went public would have an investment worth more than $120,000 by the end of 1996.

This has led to the creation of thousands of dollar millionaires. Cusumano and Selby put the figure at 3,000 out of a workforce of 17,800 in the mid-Nineties.

Gates himself, while taking a relatively modest salary, became the PC industry's first billionaire in 1987, and other big stockholders - Paul Allen and Stephen Ballmer - followed him. Even in the past 12 months, which have seen financial crisis and a government anti-trust case, shares have peaked at $117 and are now trading at about $107.

Though the company will not discuss what individuals currently hold, it does admit that about $450m of stock is currently held by some of its 28,000 employees.

However, not everyone can transform the shares into cash. Nor is everyone in the company eligible. Broadly, the higher you go in your career the higher too does your stake in the company.

According to Cusumano and Selby, employees are able to exercise 25 per cent of stock options after working for the company for just 18 months and another 12.5 per cent every 6 months afterwards for up to 10 years. New options are granted every two years. But a company spokesman said yesterday it would be "at least several years" before anyone could benefit from the scheme.

Unlike some other companies, Microsoft actually publishes its employees' share options, vested or unvested, in its annual report, which has the effect of dragging down earnings per share for normal shareholders.