Microsoft's rare outsider

Chief operating officer and key player in selling of new software is an ex-Wal-Mart executive

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November 16, 2006|By Eric Benderoff | Eric Benderoff,Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- The road-weary Kevin Turner is at the forefront of major changes at Microsoft Corp.

The company's new chief operating officer is winding down from a year of crisscrossing the globe, meeting and briefing customers about the new era dawning in Redmond, Wash.

On the product side, Microsoft is preparing to launch its Vista operating system, the long-awaited successor to Windows XP. In the coming months, business customers will see final versions along with a big upgrade in Microsoft Office 2007. The consumer product will ship early next year.

Then there is unprecedented management change, and Turner is involved on both fronts.

As chief operating officer, he has spent much of his first year on the road because few people know any of the software giant's top executives besides Chief Executive Officer Steven A. Ballmer and Chairman Bill Gates, who in 2008 will give up day-to-day work at the firm he co-founded.

Turner has met customers across Europe and throughout China, with stops in Australia, Chile and Japan.

"We're changing as a company in a lot of ways," said Turner, 41, during a recent Chicago stop, where he met with more than 50 chief information officers from top companies in the area.

Turner brings a rare outsider's voice and perspective to Microsoft. Only three of the 21 top executives on Microsoft's senior leadership team, including Turner, have been hired this millennium. The bulk of that group started at Microsoft in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Turner oversees roughly 32,000 employees who produced more than $40 billion in revenue in 2005. Among his responsibilities are sales, marketing, technology services and internal information technology.

Until late last year, he represented one of the company's biggest customers: Wal-Mart Stores Inc., where he spent 20 years and was the chief information officer before being named CEO at Sam's Club.

Now he is in a unique position on the other side of the table, trying to understand and help solve increasingly complex technology management issues for companies.

"If a customer has a problem, we have to get in and help, regardless if it is our problem or not," Turner said. "When the customer wants a choice, we can provide that choice. I want them to know they made an investment in innovation. That's how we are aligning the company."

He declined to say what he discussed with Chicago customers.

But Karenann K. Terrell, the chief information officer for Baxter International Inc., a biotechnology company in Deerfield, Ill., said he didn't push new products.

"The reason that a CIO of a large company and the COO of Microsoft get together is to talk on two fronts," Terrell said of her meeting with Turner. "First ... you make sure there is a really good strategic alignment.

"Second, to understand the requirements that are within that partnership. We're talking about solutions to enable our business to grow. That discussion is a lot different than what products we are buying in the fourth quarter."

That's the sort of talk Turner would have with Ballmer when Turner was responsible for application development and support at Wal-Mart.

"We spent a lot of time together 14 to 15 years ago," Turner said of his conversations with Ballmer at Wal-Mart's headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. Ballmer and Turner would sketch ideas on a white board.

"The product they worked on with us helped launch Microsoft into the enterprise market," Turner said, referring to the large-scale software application that operates as the backbone for big businesses. Turner said he was stuck by the "input and dialogue" he had with Ballmer.

Turner's goal is to leave a similar imprint with Microsoft's customers. Already he's cutting the red tape it takes to work with Microsoft.

"Interpreting the details of our software licensing historically has been a challenge," Turner said. "I remember how challenging it was as a customer. Earlier this year we kicked off a program to reduce the number of licensing models from 70 to nine."

Eric Benderoff writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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