November 4, 2011

Harold Burson's Blog

Steve Jobs Remembered

Posted By Harold Burson

I spoke with Steve Jobs twice, the first time soon after the Apple board fired him. The first time he cold-called me to ask if Burson-Marsteller could represent his new company, NeXT, after he was ousted as Apple’s CEO in 1985. Unfortunately, we had a conflict; he said he understood. I would have cherished the opportunity (and challenge) to work with him, especially during the start-up phase of a new business.

The second time, it was face-to-face. He used the occasion to fire me, that is, Burson-Marsteller, which had worked for Apple for some eighteen months after his departure. It took place at the 1997 Macworld Expo in Boston, Jobs’s first reappearance as Apple CEO. I never took the firing personally; I felt he did what he thought he had to do — make a public statement that life had changed at Apple (he also fired Apple’s advertising agency).

Despite losing Apple as a client, my regard for him from afar grew year-after-year. In fact, I can think of only two other business leaders who, over the past 150 years, changed the way we live to the extent Steve Jobs did. One is Thomas A. Edison, the inventor who brought light into our lives. Henry Ford is the other; his affordable Model-T automobile gave Americans, and then the world, a new sense of liberation. As a long time observer of the business scene, I cannot think of another who was so much the essence of the corporation he headed or whose impact on society affected more people as profoundly. (I wrote this before reading Walter Isaacson’s thoughtful Steve Jobs TIME magazine cover story in which he picked the same two as being Jobs equivalents.)

Actually Jobs did Edison and Ford one better — and it’s something I’ve found absent from his many glowing obituaries. I’m talking about what he did to strengthen the democratic process. Witness what happened in Egypt; witness what happened in Tunisia and its spread to Libya; what has happened to the political process in our own country. Steve Jobs gave people – the little guys – a louder voice by making the computer a near-appendage to the human tongue multiplied by a million or more. He enabled people to come together in real time and in common purpose. It’s coincidental that both Jobs and Abraham Lincoln were fifty-six when they died. Both advanced the cause of freedom, Lincoln with the Emancipation Proclamation, Jobs with the Macintosh.

My association with Apple started in 1995 when Gil Amelio became Apple’s chief executive officer. I met Gil when he headed the electronics products group of Rockwell International, Burson- Marsteller’s first major client and the one that brought Bill Marsteller and me together. Gil is a highly respected scientist/engineer who holds a Ph.D. in physics from Georgia Tech as well as more than a dozen patents on things inside the black box. He left Rockwell to become CEO at National Semiconductor in 1991; I didn’t go after his business because we worked for Texas Instruments at the time. After serving on Apple’s board as its business went from bad to worse, he was asked to take over as CEO. The company was losing money by the billions and in danger of running out of cash. Product quality had slipped and customers were beginning to lose faith in the company and its once-exalted Macs. The distribution channel was losing faith as were developers of applications and peripherals. After reading The New York Times article on Gil’s appointment, I sent him a brief handwritten note: “I want to help you.” In just a few days he asked me to come to Cupertino.

Gil told me his most pressing problem was borrowing $750 million to keep the company afloat. An obstacle he was encountering with lenders was the composition of Apple’s board; it lacked executives who had managed large companies. He sought my assistance in identifying two new directors with proven records among Fortune 100 companies. By coincidence, about ten days earlier I had met with Edgar S. Woolard, who took early retirement as DuPont’s CEO. I asked Ed what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. He said he would like to go on a corporate board where he could learn something new; I offered to help. Little did I know an opportunity would appear so quickly. I asked Gil if the recently retired CEO of DuPont qualified and, as I expected, he said such a person would be perfect. I picked up the telephone in his office and said ‘let’s find out if he is interested.’ Ed’s first question was ‘how many times a year will I have to go to California?’ Arrangements were made for them to meet, and Woolard was elected to the Apple board at its next meeting. The stage was set for something I would never have expected.

John S. Reed, long-time chairman of Citicorp, once told me Ed Woolard was the most effective director he ever worked with. One manifestation about how he went about being a director was showing up a couple days early for his first Apple board meeting at Cupertino. He spent time with each of Amelio’s direct reports learning their part of the business and establishing a rapport with Apple’s management team. It wasn’t long before Woolard became what was tantamount to Apple’s lead director. Over time, he became apprehensive about the way Amelio was managing Apple and felt the company was headed for bankruptcy. Though personally well-disposed to Gil, Ed felt he was miscast as CEO of a consumer products company in a rapidly developing technological environment. He supported Amelio’s recommendation to acquire NeXT and met and participated in discussions with Steve Jobs. From the outset of those talks, he urged Jobs to return to Apple on a full time basis as CEO. Jobs, he told me, was, at first, reluctant to return as an employee — even as CEO. Woolard, and I am certain, many others, continually urged him to return full-time. After a while Jobs agreed, though there’s little doubt he wanted a second bite of the Apple he had co-founded.

The board having decided to fire Amelio, Woolard telephoned to give me advance warning; he was the director charged with delivering the bad news. I asked him to call me as soon as possible after his meeting ; having brought Ed Woolard into the Apple inner circle, and knowing his role in the management decision, I felt obligated to face up to my long time friend. Within a half hour after leaving Gil’s office, Ed called and reported Gil took the decision philosophically; he thought Woolard and the board had made a bad call. I dialed Gil’s personal telephone number with great trepidation.

I started the conversation by asking ‘Are you still talking with me?’ It seemed to take him by surprise and he responded ‘Why wouldn’t I want to talk with you?’ I told him I was aware that he had just met with Woolard and since I had recommended Woolard for the board, he may be somewhat peeved at me.’ ‘Not at all,’ Gil replied. ‘I asked you to recommend a person who would be an effective director and, in Ed Woolard, you delivered; I simply think he and the board have made a big mistake, but you and I will continue as friends.’ I have valued his friendship even more ever since.

Through the years,and especially in the past year or so when it seemed near certain that Steve Jobs was fatally ill, I have wondered if the outcome would have been the same if Ed Woolard had not joined the Apple board. It was almost certain Jobs wanted another chance to redeem himself and that, one way or another, he likely would have ended his career as Apple’s CEO. But without Ed Woolard, it may not have been as surgically clean-cut; almost surely, the transition would have gone as smoothly. But the ultimate result would most likely have been unchanged: Steve Jobs would have played the same role in transforming so many of the things in our daily lives.

Harold Burson

November 4, 2011