Bill Virgin: Region continues to benefit from the magic men of Microsoft

February 9, 2014 

Fairly eventful week for Paul and Bill, wouldn’t you say?

And if it’s been an eventful week for those two who, at least around these parts, require no last names, then it’s been an eventful week for those of us who live, work and recreate around these parts.

For Paul Allen, the week’s proceedings are a culmination of past events and an opportunity for analysis of how those events combined to bring us where we are today. There’s a little bit of that in Bill Gates’ week as well, but for him it’s more a case of looking ahead at where current events might take him, his professional endeavors and us.

Let’s start with Paul Allen, who went to New York for a somewhat well-promoted sporting event known as the Super Bowl, and returned with a silvery bauble known as the Lombardi Trophy.

Owners of professional sports teams occupy a curious space in civic life, hailed and reviled (often at the same time) for the dollars accumulated and spent with the aid of public subsidies, and for the amount of meddling in the on-the-field product and the resultant success or failure as reported on the scoreboard.

Owning a professional sports team can bring the owner widespread acclaim for being civic-minded, or mammoth headaches that distract from whatever business activity it was that allowed the owner to accumulate sufficient wealth to buy the team. Howard Schultz gets the acclaim for transforming Starbucks into a global retailing powerhouse; he’d probably just as soon forget his foray into sports ownership, not that Sonics fans are about to let him. Nintendo is probably asking itself just what business return or community thanks it’s gotten in recent years for coming to the rescue of the Mariners.

Paul Allen has escaped much of that, which can be attributable to the Seahawks’ success (two Super Bowl appearances in his tenure as owner, none before), a reputation for letting the supposed football experts run the team and for stepping up in the first place to buy the team and organize a stadium project when the moving vans had already made one attempt to flee to California.

Not that the taxpayers didn’t have a hand in it, and not that there wasn’t considerable grumbling at the time of building yet another multi-hundred-million-dollar sports venue. There’s still grumbling, as evidenced by the opposition to the proposed Sodo hoops-and-hockey arena.

But refighting the decision to build what is now CenturyLink Field isn’t an effort likely to gain much traction these days. Without Allen’s involvement, it’s likely there’s no stadium. Without that stadium, no Seahawks. Without the Seahawks, there might still be a Seattle Sounders soccer franchise, but certainly not one playing in a venue that size and drawing those crowds.

Allen would likely score extremely well on a local poll measuring attitudes toward public figures, but it’s not just because of this week’s Seahawks euphoria. Even the supposed current attitudes of wealth-envy aren’t enough to offset appreciation for Allen’s community and philanthropic endeavors; he may have oodles of money, but the public has no problem with that if he’s doing some local good with it and isn’t a jerk about it when he’s enjoying the fruits of his financial status.

Of course there’s some residual goodwill as well derived from Allen’s involvement with a generator of considerable community wealth, as the co-founder of Microsoft, which brings us to Bill Gates.

If that aforementioned poll were taken nationally, the national response might well have been “Paul who?” The national telecast of the Super Bowl featured a few glimpses of Allen, but if mention was made of his role in the founding of Microsoft, it was fleeting.

Had it been Bill Gates who was the owner of a Super Bowl-winning team (owning a professional sports franchise has apparently never intrigued him), there would have been constant reference to his connection to Microsoft, not that it would have been necessary to remind the public. He may not have been CEO for years and he may have gone off to do other things. But Bill Gates has not only remained actively involved in the company as chairman, in the public’s mind Bill Gates is Microsoft.

And now his involvement with Microsoft is about to ratchet up, with the naming of Satya Nadella as chief executive. Gates is relinquishing the title of board chairman in favor of a role as “technology adviser” (he’s staying on the board).

The list of internal and external challenges that Nadella faces is long and well-known. What’s not so evident is whether the company plans massive restructuring and upheaval or a stay-the-course, change-incrementally strategy. Even the decision to go with an insider such as Nadella rather than a splashy outside hire such as Ford’s Alan Mulally reveals little. A Mulally might be free of constraints and tradition in pushing dramatic change, but he might not have the experience of a Nadella to know where problems reside and how to fix them.

Gates has not only created a second career for himself with his foundation (one whose mere presence contributes to the long-term prospects of the region, much as Microsoft has) but grown increasingly comfortable in that role, to judge by media appearances. The extent to which he’s diving back in to Microsoft (more than a third of his time, he says), when he could easily say, “eh, it’s your problem now,” signals that the fascination with the realms of business and technology, as well as the future of the company he co-founded, still burns.

Allen, meanwhile, faces the question that arises a millisecond after winning a Super Bowl: Can you win another one? There’s also his myriad other ventures to which he might add. In the cases of both men, it promises more eventful days, weeks and months for the region.

Given that both could go enjoy lives of considerable luxury and ease, instead of continuing to put in the hours and play the (literal and figurative) game, it’s working out reasonably well for the region that this is where they choose to not retire.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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