Few entrepreneurs survive the transition from start-up to conglomerate. Of those, only a fraction go on to lead their company past the billion-dollar mark.
And of those, only one man has directed a company to publicly traded worth of about half a trillion dollars-when compared to nations, his company boasts the ninth largest economy in the world. At 44, he may be the richest man in history, worth approximately $77 billion. He's also created more millionaires than anyone in the history of business, both directly through stock options ($10,000 invested in his company's IPO is worth $4.8 million today, the most successful stock of the century) and indirectly by making computers part of daily life.
When it came time for us to pick the "Entrepreneur of the Millennium," no one else even came close to William Henry Gates III, founder, chairman and CEO of Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft Corp.
Although he arouses as much animosity as admiration for his hardball tactics (there's even a book about his mortal enemies: Gary Rivlin's The Plot to Get Bill Gates, Times Books), everyone, friend or foe recognizes Gates as the rightful Usher-in-Chief of the Information Age. It all started when, at age 25, Gates persuaded IBM to let him keep the rights to the DOS operating system they had him develop for something called the personal computer (he actually bought the program from another company and adapted it, with considerable retailoring for the PC). Thinking the program would be quickly replaced anyway, IBM agreed to pay for a license to use it rather than purchase it outright. Now Microsoft software operates 90 percent of the world's desktop computers.
Since then, Microsoft has increased its net profits at a rate of 40 percent per year, all while sticking its fingers in an astonishing array of pies, from an online entertainment magazine to cars (1 percent of all U.S. auto sales are now made through its CarPoint Web site).
"Gates and his partner, Paul Allen, were the first to realize that software was not just an adjunct of hardware, and that it would, indeed, ultimately prove more valuable," says Paul Andrews, author of a Gates biography and the book How the Web Was Won (Broadway Books). "This simple principle ushered in the Information Age faster than all the hardware advances put together. Gates was also a major force in standardizing the technology, with DOS spurring the PC boom."
Despite its vast tentacles, Microsoft is perhaps the only major corporation still run like a start-up, with simple lines of authority and its 31,396 employees organized into small teams with frugal budgets. Everyone pretty much has offices of the same size, no one has secretaries and the work schedule is whatever employees decide it needs to be to get their projects done. This entrepreneurial approach to leadership is Gates' hallmark. "We cannot think like a big company or we are dead," he has said.
Where will Gates go from here? In the next millennium, he may again redefine himself as a renaissance entrepreneur. "People have only begun to see the impact of his wealth on education medicine, poverty and social causes, a legacy that may overshadow his technological contributions," says Andrews.