Commentary

Ears Are Burning Over Elop's Return To Microsoft

Commentators are placing their bets this morning on the odds of Nokia CEO Stephen Elop succeeding Steve Ballmer as the top silo-buster at Microsoft. Many cite the fact that U.K.-based oddsmaker Ladbrokes made him a 2-1 favorite to win the contest even before Microsoft’s acquisition of Nokia’s mobile phone business was announced late Monday. 

Elop has resigned as CEO of Nokia -- although he remains as an EVP until the deal closes -- and is coming to Microsoft to lead “an expanded Devices team,” Ballmer tells Microsoft employees. That responsibility includes Windows Phone, Xbox, and the Surface tablets. At least in the short term.

As the hed on an NBC News story asks: “Did Microsoft just pay $7.2 billion for a new boss?” CNBC’s Matthew J. Belvedere’s analysis goes on to point out that“the acquisition will be a homecoming for Elop … [who] once headed the business division there, including the rainmaking Office suite, before he left three years ago to run Finland-based Nokia.” 

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For the record, Ladbrokes suspended betting on Elop following the deal announcement; he was later reinstalled as a 4-6 favorite, according to the Irish Business Times. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, is No. 2 on the contender list early this morning, with Steve Sinofsky, former president of Microsoft’s Windows division, running third.  

“Microsoft needs a leader to help it add market share in smartphones, tablets and search,” point out Bloomberg’s Adam Ewing and Peter Burrows. Sami Sarkamies, an analyst at Nordea Bank AB in Helsinki, tells them “[Elop] has the right experience from working both inside and outside the company.”

His accomplishments at Nokia include overtaking BlackBerry as No. 3 smartphone OS, attracting new app developers; cutting thousands of jobs while overhauling Nokia’s structure and famously making the call to jettison its own Sybian OS for Windows Phone.

But Sarkamies’ assessment is balanced by the observation that Elop “has detractors who decry his failure to make Nokia profitable” and has presided over a 60% drop in market value. 

“Given the performance of Nokia under Elop’s stewardship, getting the CEO job would seem a pretty big reward,” Forrester Research analyst Charles Golvin tells Reuters. “From a financial perspective, it wasn’t a stellar performance.”

More specifically, Nokia’s smartphone share languishes at 3% and “they lost 40% of their revenue in mobile phones in Q2,” points out Swedbank analyst Hakan Wranne. "That's not a business on stable ground," he says. "Of course we will never know what would've happened if they had chosen Android.”

Elop’s “burning platform” memo rose to the top of the Best Read Internal Documents list in early 2011. Business Insider’s Jim Edwards suggests that Microsoft employees take a good look at it if they want to know “what kind of strategic thinking … Elop is going to bring …”

“The memo describes in brutal terms how Elop saw Nokia's business -- as an oil rig that's on fire, forcing workers to jump into the North Sea,” Edwards writes. He later wondered which “Microsoft products might look like burning platforms to Elop?” should he ascend to CEO.

Elop actually only spent a little more than two years at Microsoft in his previous position. He has a broad background in technology management, according to a bio on Bloomberg Businessweek, including leadership stints at Juniper Networks and Adobe, and holds a bachelor's degree in Computer Engineering and Management from McMaster University in Ontario, Canada.

Details about Elop’s personality and personal life have emerged in various stories. The 49-year-old Canadian “is a father of five, including triplet girls and a daughter he adopted from China, writes the New York Times’ Quentin Hardy. “He is close to his family, uprooting them for his first Microsoft job only at his son’s urging. But then Mr. Elop left his family in Washington while he relocated to Espoo, Finland, where Nokia is based.”

“Many Finns were relieved the Canadian was more understated than Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer or other U.S. tech executives, bonding with his adopted countrymen over a love of ice hockey, observe Reuters’ Bill Rigby and Ritsuko Ando. “Many were impressed he answered 10 to 20 emails from customers each day.”

"He is a nice guy. Everyone liked him. That's his strength," a former Nokia employee who worked closely with Elop tells them. "He is very down-to-earth, he answers all of his email. His communication skills are very good, but he has got a sense for the dramatic."

All Things D’s Kara Swisher certainly seems to be a fan. Citing an interview she had with Elop five years ago (a video is included with the story), she writes that she “was struck by the fact that he was the only exec at the company at the time who would publicly talk about how the software giant had gotten the ‘open’ religion and was becoming ‘the most interoperable company in the world.’”

She wrote back then: “I am still not sure about Microsoft, but one thing’s for sure: Elop has turned out to be one of the most interoperable of tech execs.”

And, for today at least, he is also one of the most speculated about.

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