Former Wal-Mart CIO and current Sam's Club CEO finds life outside Wal-Mart

News flash: Yesterday, Microsoft announced  that it had hired Wal-Mart  poster child Kevin Turner as its COO.  Turner, who’s just 40, currently serves as president and CEO of Sam’s Club, Wal-Mart’s wholesale club, a position he’s held for nearly three years.  He steps into his new role at Microsoft on September 8.

This announcement is significant for a variety of reasons.  First, as the Associated Press pointed out in an article yesterday, the timing of Microsoft’s hire is critical in light of its upcoming launch of a new iteration of its Windows OS.  Joe Wilcox, an analyst with Jupiter Research quoted in the article, noted that Microsoft hasn’t done a very good job of marketing its products and will need Turner’s marketing savvy, gleaned over the course of his 20 year tenure with Wal-Mart, to convince “existing business customers and consumers that what they have isn’t good enough.” 

Second, Turner is the first COO the company has had in over three years, according to the AP.  Microsoft eliminated the COO post, which was last held by Rick Belluzzo, in 2002 during a restructuring. As COO, Turner will be responsible for the strategic and operational leadership of Microsoft’s sales, marketing and service professionals on a global basis as well as the company’s fulfillment and IT operations.

Third, this is likely going to be a significant cultural shift both for Turner, who has spent his entire professional career at Wal-Mart in Bentonville, Ark., and for Microsoft.  I interviewed Turner for CIO’s 20/20 Vision Award in 2002 , and he struck me as the quintessential embodiment of Wal-Mart’s culture: polite yet firm, team-spirited yet soft-spoken, and deeply spiritual.  He’s a man who enjoys fishing for bass with his sons and turkey hunting in his spare time.  While he may find like-minded souls in Redmond, Wash., that’s not the sort of image Microsoft is known for.  (Don’t get me wrong, I’m not passing judgment here; my husband hunts and fishes, though not for bass.) 

Of course, there are obvious similarities between Wal-Mart and Microsoft that may ease the transition for both parties: They’re both huge, immensely powerful companies.  Turner as a long-time architect of Wal-Mart’s corporate and IT strategy brings deep, enviable experience to Microsoft, and if he can translate his ideas and passion into language Microsoft employees can relate to, he ought to be wildly successful. 

The fact that Turner was such a long-time employee of Wal-Mart leads me to a nagging question: Why did Turner, who seemed to so revere Wal-Mart when I spoke with him (granted, years ago), leave that nest? Maybe he found out that he wasn’t in line to become the next CEO?  Maybe he was looking for a way to further advance his enviable career?  Or maybe, after 20 years, he ran out of challenges and was simply ready for a change?

Stay tuned for more analysis on this move as I get recruiters and analysts to weigh in.  As I write this it’s too early to reach anyone on the phone, especially in Microsoft’s  Pacific time zone.  (I woke up early this morning, by the way, to cook breakfast for my husband before he left on a weekend fishing trip.)  

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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