Everything You Need to Know About New Clippers Owner Steve Ballmer

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistMay 31, 2014

FILE - Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer speaks at a Microsoft event in San Francisco, Wednesday, June 26, 2013. Ballmer, who helped build Microsoft into a technology empire and then struggled to prevent it from crumbling under his own leadership, will retire within the next 12 months. The world’s biggest software company did not name a successor. Microsoft Corp.’s stock shot up 9 percent in premarket trading following the news.  (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)
Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

The Donald Sterling era is—for all intents and purposes—finally over. According to the Los Angeles Times' James Rainey, "Former Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer has won a frenetic bidding war for ownership of the Los Angeles Clippers, with a $2-billion offer that would set a record price for an NBA team."

According to ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne, the process is all but complete at this point.

It's unclear whether there's an ownership group making that bid. At the moment, it may very well be that Ballmer is making it unilaterally. He certainly has the resources.

Per USA Today's Brent Schrotenboer, Ballmer's figure "beat out other bidders that included Los Angeles-based investors Tony Ressler and Steve Karsh and a group that included David Geffen, Oprah Winfrey, Larry Ellison and executives from the Guggenheim Group, the Chicago-based owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers."

Ballmer had apparently been keeping a close watch on the situation, potentially toying around with the possibility of making a run at the Clippers for weeks.

But he's certainly held interest in owning a franchise for longer than that.

Third Time's a Charm

Pursuing NBA franchises is nothing new to Ballmer. He's taken a couple of stabs at it already with the intent to re-establish a team in Seattle after the Sonics made their way to Oklahoma City and became the Thunder.

According to Schrotenboer, "Ballmer was part of a group headed by hedge-fund manager Chris Hansen that bid last year to buy the Sacramento Kings and move them to Seattle."

The ownership group led by Hansen and Ballmer ultimately failed to land the Kings. The team was instead sold to Vivek Ranadive in 2013, ensuring that it would remain in Sacramento. NBA owners voted down the proposal to move the team to Seattle.

More recently, Ballmer again joined Hansen, this time in an attempt to bring the Milwaukee Bucks to Seattle. ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst reports that this effort similarly came up short.

Just last month, Ballmer and partner Chris Hansen made a preliminary aggressive bid to buy the Milwaukee Bucks and move them to Seattle, offering in excess of $650 million, sources told ESPN.com. With an expected relocation fee, the price to turn the Bucks into the new Seattle SuperSonics would have topped $800 million.

However, then-Bucks owner Herb Kohl never pursued the option in favor of a $550 million bid from Wesley Edens and Marc Lasry because Kohl was committed to keeping the team in Wisconsin. 

Given his past attempts to land a franchise, it should come as no surprise that Ballmer is ecstatic about the possibility of taking the reigns in Los Angeles. He released a statement Thursday expressing his excitement.

Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

After twice trying and coming up empty, you can see why Ballmer's so enthused. He finally got the franchise he's wanted.

How Ballmer Operates

Ballmer understands bottom lines. He's driven to be successful. He's optimistic and determined. Back in 2007, he revealed some insights into his philosophy, according to The New York Times' Steve Lohr:

"You’ve got to be very realistic about where you are, but very optimistic about where you can be. And the day you can’t be both of those things, you shouldn’t be a leader of a company like Microsoft. You have to believe; you have to believe; you have to believe."

In the Ballmerian world view, failure is not an option. "If we don’t get it right at first, we’ll just keep coming and coming and coming and coming," he says.

That passion for success echoes the principles Joe Lacob has instilled with the Golden State Warriors. Anything less than winning won't be an option for Ballmer. 

At the same time, the man is no tyrant. He understands leadership in the 21st century and the premium it places on delegating to trusted others—in this case, perhaps Doc Rivers and Co. With Microsoft, that willingness to listen and change were hallmarks of his style, again per Lohr:

"The world has changed, and how Microsoft adapts to that change is going to be the test of Steve Ballmer," observed Brad Silverberg, a venture capitalist and former senior Microsoft executive. "He has fundamentally sound judgment, he’s a great leader and he’s capable of listening and hearing things that are not the way he wished. He has the tools."

Indeed, he seems to have the tools that would make him successful in virtually any venture. Ballmer's decision-making is fundamentally democratic. He likes seeking out others' opinions.

He will have plenty of good people with whom to talk in Los Angeles, and his willingness to listen could ensure there's a needed degree of continuity for a team that's already pretty darn good. Running a basketball team will no doubt be a bit different than running Microsoft, but strong leadership is one of those virtues that crosses the divide.

Another one of those virtues is loyalty. By all accounts, Ballmer is a good friend to have, according to The Guardian's Bobbie Johnson:

"Loyalty is Ballmer's number one strength," says Fredric Alan Maxwell, who wrote the unauthorised 2002 biography Bad Boy Ballmer: The Man Who Rules Microsoft. "If Ballmer were your friend, he'd be the best friend that you ever had. His loyalty is one of the reasons he still drives Ford cars - his father worked there."

The city of Los Angeles just made itself an acquaintance who probably isn't going anywhere anytime soon. We can further deduce as much because Ballmer is passionate about the game. It's in his blood.

He should also have a natural appreciation for the game as it stands today. The NBA now relies heavily on advanced metrics to influence decisions made by coaches and general managers alike. Some teams embrace those metrics more than others. Turns out Ballmer is quite the numbers guy, according to Lohr.

Like many math geeks, Mr. Ballmer has a strong affinity for numbers. Colleagues describe him as extremely analytic when it comes to dissecting business plans and financial projections.

"He has a near-photographic memory for facts, and he can scan a spreadsheet and zoom in on the one aberrant figure that suggests a problem," observes Craig Mundie, the chief research and strategy officer.

Robert J. Bach, another senior Microsoft executive, says: "I like to think I’m analytical, but I’m not in the same ZIP code as Steve."

So we can probably all guess which direction he'd like to see the Clippers head. With the league increasingly driven by advanced analytics and with Ballmer's mathematically gifted background, expect Los Angeles to continue adopting a data-heavy approach.

A 'Brash' Public Persona

In a special to Fortune, Mary Jo Foley writes, "[Ballmer's] public persona is brash, bombastic, and, at times, borderline boorish. To most people, he is known more for his manner than his management."

So at the very least, the NBA just got a little bit more interesting.

Ballmer's personality is known largely because of his various attempts to promote Microsoft. But that personality certainly transcends the ostensibly dry world of multibillion dollar corporate talk. Bloomberg Businessweek's Ashlee Vance describes him accordingly:

For many, the lasting impression of Ballmer is the sweaty, breathless, booming clown seen in countless YouTube clips, such as the 'monkey boy' dance from a decade ago. He plays the cheerleader in public appearances in an apparent effort to prove that no one can top his love of Microsoft—and he succeeds cringingly well. Six feet tall and stocky, Ballmer has an enthusiasm that makes him even larger.

That palpable enthusiasm should make him an avid NBA fan and owner alike. We aren't looking at just another guy in a suit. Ballmer has a life outside of business, and that makes him a unique fit for a situation where sports and business collide.

In his interview with The Wall Street Journal's Shira Ovide, Ballmer discussed his various pursuits since leaving Microsoft. There are a lot of them:

I’m trying to learn, read and understand. I don’t know what I’ll do, but I know that I have to build new capabilities. There are things I’m interested in, mostly around where our government and our economy is [headed]. I was down at a lecture at Stanford [Tuesday] that was delivered by the head of the Congressional Budget Office. It was fascinating. I’m taking a class. I’m actually planning to co-teach a class in the fall. I’ve played a lot more golf. I’ve played better golf.

And in case you're wondering, the class he's been taking is French.

Ballmer is also a family man. He's been with his wife Connie since 1990 and has three sons. His wife co-founded a non-profit called Partners for our Children and is heavily active in charity work.


How He Made His Fortune

Steve Ballmer is worth an estimated $20 billion. Getting there has been a long process, though.

The Detroit native graduated from Harvard in 1977 with a degree in mathematics and economics.

He started working for Microsoft in 1980, long before it became the giant we think of today. According to his online biography, he was the first business manager the company hired. 

Ballmer didn't retire until February 2014, 14 years after he became chief executive officer. Prior to that, he also served as "senior vice president of sales and support, senior vice president of systems software and vice president of marketing."

In 2013, Foley wrote, "the real Steve Ballmer is responsible for making a handful of largely unsung strategic decisions during his tenure as CEO of Microsoft (MSFT) that will continue to affect the company and industry long after a new leader takes the helm of the Redmond, Wash.-based company."

She gives Ballmer much of the credit for developing the multifaceted Xbox platform, now a mainstay in the video game industry. As the Xbox evolved, it's become a multimedia center that goes way beyond gaming.

Foley notes that, "Under Ballmer, Microsoft's profits doubled, revenues tripled."

There's a reason for that. Ballmer told Foley, "'How do you make money?' was what I got hired to do. I've always thought that way."

Ballmer has generated plenty of praise for his tenure with the tech giant. Per Vance, former Microsoft board member and professor emeritus at Harvard Business School James I. Cash said, 

[Ballmer] has grown as much as any leader I have ever been exposed to. When the company was younger and smaller, Steve could, quite honestly, overwhelm most of the issues he faced with his energy and smarts. Now he’s learned to manage through people and made a commitment to interdisciplinary work. I think he will come off looking like a really unique and special leader.

That business acumen seemingly bodes well for the Clippers' future. Ballmer knows how to make money, how to make his investments lucrative ones. Expensive as this venture has proven to be, Ballmer probably knows what he's doing with all that money. 


The Seattle Factor

Ballmer's background may be in the tech industry, but his interest in basketball is nothing new. GeekWire's Taylor Soper notes that he "was also part of another investment group that tried to keep the Sonics in Seattle back in 2008 before the team left town to Oklahoma City."

Speculation has already run rampant as to whether this purchase could be a precursor to a future move. 

Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

Earlier in May, Ballmer commented to The Wall Street Journal's Shira Ovide on the possibility of purchasing the Clippers, saying, "I have nothing definitive to say. Am I right on top of what’s going on there? Absolutely I am. I love basketball, and I’d love to participate at some point in the NBA. If the opportunity is outside of Seattle, so be it. I will learn about any team that comes up for sale at this point."

He added that he wouldn't be interested in moving the Clippers to Seattle: "If I get interested in the Clippers, it would be for Los Angeles. I don’t work anymore, so I have more geographic flexibility than I did a year, year-and-a half ago. Moving them anywhere else would be value destructive."


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