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IDG News Service - If Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates had not asked Steve Ballmer to join his start-up software company as employee number 24 in 1980, the now infamous Ballmer would probably have made a career out of selling car insurance.
Known for his sometimes wild exuberance, rallying the Microsoft troops at the company's annual meetings and firing up developers at a conference, the "embalmer" is also a math whiz and affable business manager with a clear focus on Microsoft's customers and the company's bottom line.
Ballmer was raised in the suburbs of Detroit where his father, a Swiss immigrant with a knack for languages, worked as a manager for Ford Motor. His mother was a native of the motor city. One of his crosstown friends was Scott McNealy, now chief executive of Microsoft rival Sun Microsystems.
At age 8, Ballmer was told by his father that he was headed for Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. He did well in school academically, earning valedictorian honors at Detroit Country Day School. Ballmer also wanted to excel in sports, but ended up being the basketball team's manager.
Today, Ballmer often escapes from the Microsoft campus on time to play basketball with his sons.
He met Bill Gates at Harvard, who lived in the same dormitory. The two became fast friends. "I was his business buddy," Ballmer told the Detroit News in a 2001 interview. "When Bill needed a business person versus a technical person, he'd give me a call."
While Gates dropped out of Harvard, Ballmer stayed and received a bachelor's degree in mathematics and economics. After college, he worked for two years at Procter & Gamble marketing cake mix then headed to Stanford University Graduate School of Business in Stanford, Calif. He later dropped out of Stanford to join Microsoft.
Ballmer had a hard time convincing his father, who had no clue what Microsoft did, that leaving graduate school was a good move. "He had no idea why I was dropping out of graduate school to go to some fly-by-night outfit in Seattle run by a buddy of mine who was just 24 years old," Ballmer told the Detroit News.
As the nonengineer at Microsoft, Ballmer was charged with thinking about the company's bottom line. A close partnership with Gates, sometimes referred to as a marriage, was born. Gates would be the technologist, while Ballmer was the business strategist.
Ballmer has been credited with deciding against an IBM-style direct sales network, instead relying on a large network of partners for sales. He also persuaded large software makers such as Germany's SAP AG to port their software to Windows, key to win enterprise customers.
Business Week once described Gates as Microsoft's brain and Ballmer as its "wildly thumping" heart. His wildness led to throat surgery in the early 1990s, when Ballmer blew out his vocal chords.
In July 1998, Ballmer was promoted to president after six years running sales and support. Some saw the promotion as public recognition for the fact that Ballmer had been Gates' co-pilot for 18 years, others thought naming Microsoft's top bulldog president was a curious move amidst the antitrust woes the company faced.