How Steve Ballmer Became The World’s Richest Non-Founder Billionaire

There’s a fairly straightforward path to becoming fabulously wealthy — start a company, create something that’s useful, take the company public, and then rake in the moolah. But there’s also a way to become fabulously wealthy without starting a company.

Steve Ballmer is perhaps the most famous — and richest — non-founder billionaire. He was employee number 20 at Microsoft, but thanks to his Microsoft shareholdings, is currently the world’s 10th richest man with a net worth of $124 billion. Ballmer is richer than founders of several very successful companies including Michael Bloomberg of Bloomberg, Michael Dell of Dell, and even the Waltons at Walmart.

There wasn’t much to suggest in Ballmer’s early days that he’d end up being so wealthy. Ballmer had joined Microsoft because he was friends with Microsoft founder Bill Gates at Harvard. He had been working as a brand manager at Proctor and Gamble, but was asked to join Microsoft, which at that point was a brand new startup. When Ballmer joined, he discovered that he didn’t even have an office, and made do with space at one end of the sofa near Bill Gates’ desk.

But Ballmer didn’t mind — after spending a year at Microsoft, where he was running the company’s operating system business, he realized that Microsoft could end up being a lot more valuable than it then was. He felt that IBM no longer controlled the PC business, but Microsoft did, and this could yield the company enormous profits in the long run.

At this point, Ballmer went all-in on Microsoft — he borrowed everything he could against his Microsoft stock, stock options, and every other possession, and used every cent to buy Microsoft shares, as revealed in the book Accidental Empires by Robert Cringely. In all, Ballmer put in $50 million into the company stock. This was unconventional behavior for a business executive — most executives regularly sell their stocks to get themselves some hard cash and hedge their bets, but Ballmer kept going all-in on Microsoft through his career.

And he held on to the stock even when it had plateaued. Ballmer had been the CEO of Microsoft from 2000 to 2014, which didn’t see the stock give great returns. But even though everyone including Microsoft founder Bill Gates was selling Microsoft shares, Ballmer held on to them. As luck would have it, after Satya Nadella was appointed Microsoft CEO in 2014, Microsoft’s stock began rising, and has given incredible returns over the last decade. From holding on to his Microsoft shares, Ballmer is now worth $124 billion, and is one of the richest men in the world.

There are a few things Ballmer did differently to get there. For starters, he left a stable job at Proctor and Gamble to join a tiny company called Microsoft, where he became the 20th employee. It was a gamble, but it paid off in the long run. Also, Ballmer was quick to understand Microsoft’s potential, and acted on it — he borrowed money to acquire as much Microsoft stock as he possibly could. And even when the stock was underperforming, he held on to it. It has taken a bit of luck, but understanding Microsoft’s potential early on — and acting on it — has made Ballmer the world’s richest non-founder billionaire.