Steve Jobs’ announcement last night that he was stepping down as CEO of Apple triggered at least some level of investor concern as evidenced by the stock opening down $10.99 (2.9%) at $365.99. (despite both buyside and sellside assurances that the company has a well-conceived product roadmap for the next two to three years).
But rather than causing me to toss and turn all night contemplating the open, Jobs’ sad disclosure for me brought to the forefront a raft of more personal concerns, some selfish like the fact that I’m less than a decade away from Jobs’ 56 years, and some mercenary like the fact that I had never owned shares of Apple directly while Steve was at the helm.
But the one thought I couldn’t get out of my head was an incident long ago that for me clearly demonstrated what really set Steve Jobs apart both as a person and a CEO.
I’m having a hard time placing exactly when my encounter with Steve happened, but if my memory’s not completely shot, I believe it was sometime shortly before the November 1998 release of Pixar’s second full-length animated feature film, “A Bug’s Life.” Given the tremendous success of “Toy Story,” fears of a sophomore slump were rampant and raising investor concern over Pixar which had gone public in November of 1995 selling 6.9 million shares at $22 a share and which I covered as an equity analyst at Hambrecht & Quist.
I still remember sitting in my 17th floor office at One Bush in San Francisco at about 5:30pm PST on a Friday afternoon, trying to clean up my desk so I could at least have somewhere to work the following morning (we used to regularly work 2/3rds of the day on Saturdays). My phone was ringing and I let me assistant pick it up. She let me know it was Steve Jobs on the line and he wanted to talk. Ready to call bullshit on one of my college buddies, I was shocked to recognise the voice as someone who sounded very much like Steve Jobs.
Steve was calling because he was scheduled to present at an H&Q Tech Conference that coming Monday, and he was very concerned about what type of projectors we would be using to show a 90 second clip of “A Bug’s Life,” I told Steve that I would find out and call him right back (he gave me his direct number). After talking to our production company, I relayed the news to Steve who was clearly not happy with my response. He had a very specific projector in mind and he threatened to pull out of the conference if we could not provide one.
I hung up again and got back on the phone with the production company that informed me the projector cost upwards of $50,000, that we would have to buy one as they were not available for rent, and that we would also likely have to buy a backup as Steve knew the projectors were incredibly finicky and prone to breaking down.
realising this wasn’t a great situation, I called up Cristina Morgan, Dan Case’s right hand at H&Q, to ask her what we should do. Cristina knew Steve from both Pixar’s and Apple’s IPOs and she told me to go ahead and offer to buy the projectors, but let Steve know that he would have to provide the projectionist as this was clearly above our capabilities as well as our production company. As it was now going on 8pm PST, Steve again answered his own office phone and appreciated our offer, but realising he would be hard pressed to find a projectionist he could trust on such short notice let me know that our projectors would have to suffice and that he’d see me bright and early on Monday.
At the time, I thought I had but another humorous anecdote regarding Steve’s mercurial behaviour and his willingness to terrorize those with which he worked–both inside and outside his companies.
What I realised this morning (some 13 years after the fact) was Steve’s amazing, almost uncanny attention to detail.
I called up an old friend Greg Cote, who manages LakePointe Capital, is an Apple investor, and had dealings with Steve and Pixar as an institutional salesperson at Robertson Stephens (which was the lead underwriter on Pixar’s IPO), to recount this story and confirm that my takeaways were on target.
Greg readily agreed saying that what he felt really sets Steve apart is not the fact that he is indeed a visionary, but that his attention to detail rivals that of the most focused nuclear engineer, “You usually see the capacity in a chief executive for one or the other–thinking in revolutionary broad strokes or the ability to laser focus on the seemingly most insignificant minutia,” Greg notes. “But Steve is an almost singular example with an amazing capacity to do both.”
So as the market opens and investors begin to fret over the future of direction of Apple, my biggest concern is whether new CEO Tim Cook (or anyone else in Apple’s senior management team) will be getting on the phone late on a Friday afternoon to call a stock analyst to find out what type of projector they will be using that following Monday.