This is a story about an enormous decision at Apple — arguably one of the most important moments in Apple’s entire history — and yet, one that people barely remember today.
If Apple hadn’t made this choice, however, there’s virtually no chance the company would exist as you know it today: no iPhone, no Apple Music, no Apple TV.
Heck, if you’re a fan of Ted Lasso, I don’t know where you’d find it.
It all goes back to a single day, 25 years ago: January 31, 1996, starting around 8 a.m., when Apple’s board of directors met in the offices of its New York City law firm.
There were two items on the agenda, according to an account by Gil Amelio, who was a member of the board at the time and whose name will become quite familiar to you shortly, if you don’t know it already.
Item #1: a proposal to sell Apple outright to Sun Microsystems.
Item #2: a plan to bring in Amelio as CEO.
As Amelio recounted in his 1998 book, On the Firing Line: My 500 Days at Apple, the deal to sell Apple to Sun came very close to happening. He was impressed by Sun’s presentation, until the moment when Sun’s CEO and founder, Scott McNealy, wouldn’t commit to keeping the Apple brand alive (as opposed to rebranding everything under “Sun”).
The idea of dumping “Apple” was a “huge red flag,” Amelio wrote. “Could it be that this smart, capable business icon was unaware the Apple brand name was something not only worth keeping but worth nurturing and promoting?”
Still, Amelio said he felt he had to stay part of the discussion to find out what Sun would pay for Apple. In his telling, this is where it all fell apart.
Apple’s stock was trading at about $28 a share; Amelio expected to hear a pitch of at least $30. Instead, Sun offered $23 a share.
Amelio rejected it with 10 words: “Scott, that’s impossible. I can’t get behind that at all.”
The meeting continued for several hours, but Amelio’s position killed the deal, since he was officially offered the CEO position, and he took it on the condition that the board wouldn’t sell to Sun at a discount.
I suspect Amelio’s name won’t be familiar to a lot of readers; he was CEO of Apple during a tough time a quarter century ago, and as his book title reveals, only for about 500 days, until July 1997.
It was a dramatic tenure, however, capped in retrospect by the fact that it was Amelio who led Apple to buy Steve Jobs’s company, NeXT. Six months after that, Jobs convinced Apple’s board to fire Amelio and eventually install himself as interim CEO.
(Amelio went on to be a founder and CEO at other companies, and then became a venture capitalist.)
Now, I started thinking about this whole saga after seeing the renewed reporting about a stymied deal for Apple to buy Tesla a few years back.
But you have to wonder: If that deal had happened, and had Tesla been subsumed into Apple, would it have had the success it’s had?
For that matter, what would have happened to Apple, if Sun had raised its offer just a little bit back in 1996? In that case, Jobs would likely never have come back, right?
Would anyone be reading this on an iPhone? Would I be writing it on a MacBook Air? I’m going to guess not.
I think the big takeaway for any business leader here is just how much can turn on a single day, or a single decision — or even a short phrase.
Those 10 words that Amelio quotes himself saying, rejecting Sun’s offer as he was about to take over the big chair at Apple, turned out to be very important.
So, know your history, and believe in yourself. And never let anyone else tell you that you or your business is worth less than you know.