Ford CEO reportedly top pick to replace Ballmer as Microsoft chief

Ford CEO Alan Mulally has taken pole position among potential candidates for the Microsoft CEO job, sources claim, despite the exec's ongoing denials that he has ambitions to replace Steve Ballmer. Mulally's name was pushed by Microsoft's board as a possibility, it was reported earlier this month, but Nokia's Stephen Elop was believed to be the frontrunner as he returned to the firm following the smartphone division acquisition. Now, AllThingsD reports, favor has returned to focus on Mulally.

The exec – known for favoring a Ford-branded bright red vest – made strong denials when the rumors first surfaced. "I continue to be focused on service our Ford" Mulally insisted to AllThingsD's Kara Swisher earlier this month, when speculation about the exec's possible move first began, "and I have my red Ford vest on right now!!"

However, although Elop is still in the running – not to mention in line for a considerable cash payout should the Nokia smartphone division acquisition get approval – attention has supposedly turned back to Mulally, particularly because of his track record on turning companies around. That's something Elop might struggle to argue about himself, however, given Nokia's difficulties re-establishing itself after the switch to Windows Phone.

That Mulally is leaving Ford is no surprise; the company confirmed back in November 2012 that he would step down as CEO of the car firm at the end of 2014. That would, on paper at least, not fit in with Ballmer's own timescale for departure, which will see the outspoken exec abdicate by August 2014.

According to a Reuters report, though, despite Ford's previously outlined roadmap, Mulally could well leave earlier. That's not something Ford would confirm; "there is no change from what we announced in November" spokesperson Jay Cooney insisted. "Alan Mulally plans to continue to serve as Ford's president and CEO through at least 2014."

Even with the renewed attention, Mulally is not the only person Microsoft – and its Heidrick & Struggles agency conducting the search – is considering. Internal candidate Tony Bates is said to be another strong possibility, joining Microsoft after working as CEO of Skype.