Silicon Valley pioneer Donna Dubinsky was a middle manager at Apple in 1985 when then-chairman Steve Jobs proposed completely changing the company’s distribution strategy.
Dubinsky fought back against the plan — giving an ultimatum that she would quit — and instead of getting fired, she got promoted.
That’s according to an anecdote about former Apple employee and Palm CEO Dubinsky in the new book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move The World, published this week:
Suddenly, Steve Jobs proposed eliminating all six U.S. warehouses, dropping their inventory, and moving to a just-in-time production system in which computers would be assembled upon order and overnighted by FedEx.
Dubinsky thought this was a colossal mistake, one that could put the company’s entire future in jeopardy. “In my mind, Apple being successful depended on distribution being successful,” she says.
In 1985, Apple’s corporate culture was not doing well. Jobs was fighting with then-CEO John Scully for ultimate control of the company, and he had poured his heart and soul into the Macintosh project, which he considered the future of Apple.
Part of the Macintosh project was building a state of the art factory that would also distribute Apple computers — when a customer ordered one, the factory would then build the new Mac and ship it overnight. This plan was championed by Jobs himself. But Dubinsky thought it had several flaws, according to a case study published by Harvard Business School, calling it a “total nonrecognition of our business, as far as I’m concerned.”
At the time, although Dubinsky was a manager, she was not senior, and challenging Jobs’ proposal was a career risk. But she had enough money saved up in case she lost her job, and she eventually delivered an ultimatum that unless she got 30 days to make a counterproposal, she would quit.
Her argument carried the day, and she was promoted to a senior management position running an Apple software subsidiary. After leaving Apple in 1991, she eventually became CEO of Palm Computing, and later founded Handspring, which created one of the first smartphones, the Treo, in 2002.
Ultimately, Dubinsky’s story is about Jobs’ flexibility and openness to new ideas. Years later, Dubinsky met with Jobs, who told her “there’s no way I’m ever building a phone.”
But Apple launched the iPhone in 2007, which went on to propel the company to unforeseen heights. And the distribution expert at Jobs’ side when he launched his phone, Tim Cook, is now the CEO of the company.
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