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Will Bill Gates stay away?

Microsoft has prudently planned Bill Gates' job change two years in advance. With all the methodical planning, it seems unlikely Gates will return to an operational role at the computer giant.
/ Source: Forbes

No one can accuse Bill Gates of acting rashly. On Thursday, Microsoft's co-founder and chairman announced that he will transition out of the company in July 2008 to spend more time working for his charitable foundation.

Microsoft's stock barely budged, perhaps because the firm prudently planned the job change two years in advance. And the transition process has already started: Chief Technical Officer Ray Ozzie will begin working at Gates' side as chief software architect, and Craig Mundie, also a chief technical officer, will start assuming Gates' research responsibilities.

With all this methodical planning, it seems unlikely that Gates will return to an operational role at the computer giant. After all, he relinquished the CEO title to Steve Ballmer six years ago. But other technology firm founders have been unable to resist the pull.

Perhaps the most famous is Apple founder Steve Jobs, one of the few CEOs with Gates-level star power. Jobs was forced out of his firm in 1985. He returned 11 years later, when Apple bought NeXT Computer, another Jobs creation. Though he erroneously declared "the desktop computer is dead" in a Wired magazine article in 1996, Jobs soon redeemed himself with the iMac and, of course, the ubiquitous iPod. Apple's shares reached an all-time high earlier this year.

Ted Waitt, another member of the tech billionaire club, also made a U-turn. A college dropout, he founded Gateway in 1985 with a $10,000 loan secured by his grandmother. He led the company until late 1999, when he handed the reins to Jeffrey Weitzen, a former vice president at AT&T.

When the economy faltered a year later, the computer maker's sales started to slow, and Waitt took the job back. Unlike Jobs, however, Waitt didn't spur a miraculous turnaround at his company. He relinquished the CEO title again in 2004 and left the board last year. Like Gates, Waitt turned to philanthropy; he's now focusing on his eponymous foundation.

Corning also looked to its past when it faced falling sales. In April 2002, the company — which makes fiber optic and environmental technologies, among other products — announced that its first-quarter sales had fallen to $900 million, less than half of its $1.92 billion take in the previous year. Later that year, James R. Houghton, who had served as chairman and CEO from 1983 to 1986, returned for a second at-bat.

Houghton shut down more than a dozen of the firm's plants and cut its workforce by nearly half. Houghton wasn't an entrepreneur like some of the other super-CEOs in the technology sector — his great-great-grandfather founded Corning in 1851. Houghton is now the firm's non-executive chairman of the board.

Will Gates be able to stay away? "Probably not," says John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a consulting and job placement firm for executives. "The people who have the hardest time staying away are the ones who own large shares in the company." As of Sept. 9, 2005, Gates owned just over 1 billion, or 9.55%, of Microsoft's outstanding shares, according to the company's latest proxy statement.

But Challenger says Gates is transitioning into an "elder statesman" role, and he probably won't get involved in the company's day-to-day operations. "I don't think he's going to be in there tinkering with things and kind of being the boss that never left," Challenger says.

With Daniel Schuker, Cyrus Mossavar-Rahmani, and Laurence Holland.