It's 13 March 1986: Microsoft, founded more than a decade earlier and already a powerhouse in the world of personal computer software, executes an initial public offering (IPO) that will raise $61 million for the company and leave 30-year-old co-founder Bill Gates unfathomably wealthy.
If you had the good fortune to have bought 100 shares at the $21 offering price that day and sat on the investment for 25 years, it would have mushroomed into 28,800 shares over the course of nine stock splits and be worth about three quarters of a million dollars today (excluding dividends).
That’s the good news. Here’s the disheartening caveat: Had you instead sold your stash on 1 Dec 1999 when Microsoft’s stock price reached its peak, you would have reaped $1.4 million.
You have to believe someone did … and tells that story every day.
Speaking of good fortune, Fortune magazine was granted inside access to Gates, his executive, legal teams and their Wall Street partners in the months leading up to the IPO. That arrangement resulted in a terrific fly-on-the-wall story published four months later. Here are a few highlights gleaned from that story and other online resources: Gates was not at all anxious to go public, but Microsoft was bumping up against federal regulations governing the number of private stockholders a company can have before being required to register with the Securities and Exhange Commission.
A quote from Gates: ''The whole (IPO) process looked like a pain and an ongoing pain once you're public. People get confused because the stock price doesn't reflect your financial performance. And to have a stock trader call up the chief executive and ask him questions is uneconomic - the ball bearings shouldn't be asking the driver about the grease.''
Crafting the prospectus was reportedly a labour of dental surgery, as the driving goal became guarding against future litigation that might be fueled by even the slightest hint that Microsoft was hyping its future prospects. Look which current CEO pops up as the voice of doom and gloom in a description of one meeting with the Wall Streeters:
"For ten hours Gates, (Microsoft president and COO Jon) Shirley, and other managers exhaustively described their parts of the business and fielded questions. Surprisingly, the Microsoft crew tended to be more conservative and pessimistic than the interrogators. Steven A Ballmer, 30, a vice-president sometimes described as Gates's alter ego, came up with so many scenarios for Microsoft's demise that one banker cracked: 'I'd hate to hear you on a bad day'."
And here’s how the Fortune story described the opening bell:
“At 9:35am Microsoft's stock traded publicly on the over-the-counter market for the first time at $25.75. Within minutes Goldman Sachs and Alex Brown (stet: Alex Brown) exercised their option to take an extra 300,000 shares between them. (Microsoft CFO Frank) Gaudette could hardly believe the tumult. Calling Shirley from the floor, he shouted into the phone: 'It's wild! I've never seen anything like it - every last person here is trading Microsoft and nothing else'."
Gates earned a mere $1.6 million for shares he sold that day, but his remaining 45 percent stake in the company was worth $350 million, instantly making him one of the nation’s 100 wealthiest individuals. He splurged by paying off his $150,000 home mortgage.