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Ballmer shoots down Microsoft breakup advice

Shareholders fractious over investment returns

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Steve Ballmer has scotched suggestions from investors at Microsoft's annual shareholders meeting that his company should spin off some of its divisions

Ballmer and Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates faced a fractious audience, with many stockholders expressing their displeasure at the company’s poor stock price and returns. One member asked if there would be merit in spinning off some of the businesses, à la EMC and VMware, but Ballmer was quick to shoot that idea down.

“The amount of synergy across our product activities is very high,” he said. “There’s nothing I see as creating fundamental value in splitting the company up. Having minority investments makes it harder to manage synergies.”

He cited graphics technology being used in everything from workstations to the Xbox, and the plans to integrate Bing and Skype into more and more products. Splitting the company up, he explained, would make accomplishing these goals much more complicated.

Nevertheless, there’s clearly a lot of disquiet among shareholders, despite last year’s double-digit revenue growth. One shareholder criticized Microsoft’s share buy-back scheme, pointing out that shareholders are quite capable of deciding on their own if they want to reinvest. Another repeatedly complained that having a shareholder meeting of only one hour was not enough.

The company also faced questions over its involvement in China. A shareholder pointed out that Microsoft made most profits in countries with free expression, and therefore wasn’t it in Microsoft’s interest to bring these values to China? General counsel Brad Smith said that the company was only obeying orders.

“We obey the law in the countries we operate in, but [in the case of China] we also exchange in a dialog with the government there,” he explained. “We do have safeguards, so we don’t censor beyond the level demanded by the law. In every country we operate in, we have done a tremendous amount to let people to express their views.”

Despite the mood, the nine Microsoft directors were voted in again this year with over 98 per cent of the votes cast – including Ballmer and Gates. The executive pay structure for the next year was also approved by a similar margin.

Another shareholder, from Harrington Investments, introduced a sustainability motion, which would have Microsoft audit its partners on their environmental policies – which the shareholder described as a moral duty.

That motion got a mere four per cent of the shareholders' votes. ®

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