Carl Bass on his surprising Autodesk exit — and what’s next

Carl Bass is sitting at his desk at Autodesk today, but he’s no longer CEO of the publicly traded design software company. He stepped down earlier this week in a move that some associated — wrongly, notes Bass — with an interview Bass granted to the outlet Pando, wherein he disparaged President Donald Trump.

This morning, we talked with Bass about his resignation, his continuing role as a board member with Autodesk, if he regrets speaking out against the administration as a public company CEO, and whether he thinks more tech CEOs should do the same.

The famously straight-shooting Bass had plenty to say about it all. He also shared some of what he hopes to work on next. Our conversation has been edited lightly for length.

TC: You stepped down as CEO on Tuesday, and senior VPs Amar Hanspal and Andrew Anagnost have been installed as interim co-CEOs. But you’re helping in the search for your replacement, is that correct? 

CB: Yes, Tuesday was my last day, but I’ll continue working as an employee for three months and am continuing on the board of directors for a while. We started planning this a while ago, because the best way to do [a succession change] is for the current CEO to step down. Otherwise, the best external candidates aren’t sure there’s really a job opening. You know, sometimes you see the pocket veto, where the CEO has a change of heart and says, “Hey, if you’re going to choose so and so, I’m not leaving.” This is a clean break, and outside candidates take it seriously, and the board takes it seriously. We’ve hired an outside search team who will be talking with both internal and external candidates, so hopefully [we’ll find the right candidate] quickly.

TC: You’ve said that you and Autodesk’s board began succession planning talks 18 months ago, but some people believe an interview wherein you criticized Donald Trump played a role in the timing of your resignation.

CB: There were a lot of rumors this week that couldn’t be further from the truth. To the extent that you take what a company says with a grain of salt [because companies can be so promotional], when it comes to governance, these are real rules. There are real penalties of law. Public companies don’t take that lightly.

TC: Do you regret being so public about how you feel about Trump? 

CB: Not, not at all. Not one bit. When you look at Trump, there are three things going on: policies; character and temperament; and executive or administrative functioning. I think on two and three, almost everybody can agree that he’s not qualified, and that’s why I joked [to Pando’s Sarah Lacy] that he’s running the government like someone in between a small businessman and dictator. I watch what’s happening every day, and I’m reminded of my kids when they were four years old and had no awareness of anything outside of themselves. He’s a 70-year-old baby.

On the policy stuff, it’s hard to parse what his policy is. We’re against the “One China” policy; now we’re for it. We’re going to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; now we’re not. Policy seems to be the part of the job that least interests him. These are complicated issues, but they don’t seem to captivate him. He doesn’t seem particularly curious or thoughtful about them. He’s more interested in tweeting out the latest insult that [springs to mind].

TC: Do you think other tech executives should be more vocal, or is it too much of a risk?

CB: I think anybody who has a platform should speak out. I’ve had a ton of people reach out to me this week — people much better-known than I am, say, “That’s awesome, what you said.” And I’m like, “Why don’t you say it? You have a bigger pulpit.”

TC: A lot of people think Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk should step off Trump’s economic advisory council. What do you think?

CB: It’s a complicated issue for Elon. I think many of the things he’s trying to accomplish are really worthy goals but they intersect with regulation: autonomous vehicles, putting things in space. You can’t do that without the government, so from a very self-interested point of view, and in the interest of his companies, I understand. On the other hand, he has a very public platform and I’m sure he has an opinion and if everybody takes the self-interested view, the world doesn’t get to hear the opinions of its leaders. So I think it’s important but I certainly understand.

I’ve [feel even more strongly about Facebook COO] Sheryl Sandberg. She has gone out of her way to build a brand around the power of women and what they’re capable of, and when it comes to the Women’s March, she was invisible. She seems to have leaned out quite a bit.

TC: Why did you start succession planning 18 months ago? Plenty of CEOs run their companies longer than you have.

CB: I’d been doing the job for a long time. I’ve been CEO for 11 years and there were two or three years when I was COO and responsible for the company’s day-to-day, so it feels like 14 years that I’ve been doing this.

And I have plenty of other interests. I’m on a handful of boards [including HP and Zendesk and still-private startups, including Planet]. I have a small portfolio of things I’ve invested in. I have two big workshops where I build and invent things and make stuff.

I love the company and I love my job, but it hugely consumes your time. Like every other executive job, it’s 60 hours a week and if you give 60, the job [demands] 65. You’re never done. To do the job well, you also need thick and thin skin. You need thick skin when people think you were fired because you said something about Trump. You need thin skin to empathize with your customers and employees and the world around you. And all those forces get tiring after a while. My second kid just got out of the house this year and I would like to spend more time in the shop, traveling and with startups.

TC: You were also dealing with activist investor groups — Sachem Head Capital and Eminence Capital — who together gathered an 11.5 percent stake in the company. 

CB: Last fall, we were in the process of making the change, and just then, the activists showed up. I don’t want to overemphasize — it isn’t like they had a lot to say about the company. It wasn’t that we were doing badly. They more thought we were sandbagging about the future and that we should be talking it up and that our long-range projections were [too conservative]. It was, “You guys could do twice as well!” Well, it’s easy to say from the sidelines. Easy for me to say Atlanta should have won the Super Bowl, but I didn’t have to play.

So we suspended succession planning. We put it on hold because we needed more stable leadership while the activists were there and whether the next CEO is an external or internal person, it seems like an unfair burden to place on them. I have a fair amount of currency in the bank; I’m much more willing to fight than many others. I thought, “This is a job built for me, and I should stay until the activists decide to leave.”

So last year they were on the board. The company’s stock is up 70 or 80 percent over the  last 12 months, the markets have more confidence in [Autodesk’s move in 2015 to a subscription-only model] , and we were able to make a deal. I said, “I’m willing to continue this process if you guys get off the board.” Now they’re getting off the board [as soon as the new CEO is elected], and I’m getting out as CEO.

TC: Silicon Valley startups have grown more aware of the need to defend themselves from activist investors and they’ve increasingly been granting founders special types of stock that give them control over key decisions. Do you think that’s the solution to this issue?

CB: Yes. If I was a founder, I would have special stock. Because a number of things in corporate governance have lent themselves to activists taking advantage, I think the reaction has to be, at least in the short term, that companies have dual-class mechanisms in place.

I think neither extreme is good, though. I think activism is this deviant, extreme form of capitalism. It’s like other ideologies, where good ideas are taken to an extreme and lose their meaning. On the other hand, I don’t think dual-class stock is the best mechanism because shareholders should have a say.

I’d like to see tenured voting, where there’s a premium based on how long you own the shares. I don’t know of any public company that has done it yet, but I don’t know why you can’t do it. [It would follow that] one person who has owned a million shares for one year has less voting power than another person who has owned a million shares for two years.

TC: Before we let you go, what’s next? Is every venture firm on Sand Hill Road trying to lure you into the fold?

CB: I’ve been shocked by the number of people who have good ideas for what I should do next. It’s a funny mix in my inbox right now. I’ve received 4,000 emails from employees, which are very touching and emotional. On the other hand, there are all these people trying to get me to do something next.

I am going to do an advisory role at Google X. I’ve also been thinking about [potentially] starting my own accelerator program. In the next few months I’ll figure out what I’m going to do. In the meantime, I want to keep skiing on the weekdays.