Goodbye Steve Jobs

About 10 years ago I joined Apple to lead their EMEA Compensation & Benefits efforts.

At the time, Apple was far from being the influential organisation it is today. Yes, Steve Jobs was back and had launched a number of new products, but the positioning of the company was still pretty much niche, with mostly creative and education professions as hardcore fans buying the computers.  We owned between 1 and 2% of the total market share in computers, and aiming to get 5% was thinking big.

The iPod wasn’t there yet (let alone iPhone and iPad), and the financial results were not good. We were in the midst of a 2-year salary freeze, and bonus budgets were so small  that I honestly would have preferred a complete freeze to manage expectations. All stock-options, including the most recent ones, were under water. I know, it’s hard to believe today, isn’t it ?

So we did what we could. There was a Stock Option Exchange Program to allow employees who were interested to let go of their under-water stocks. I led the redesign of the Sales Incentive Plan in Europe, enabling better focus on direct sales (we were launching the online store, as well as thinking of opening the first Apple Stores) as well as channel sales through distributors and retailers. Following an extensive audit of benefits in the region, I focused on trying to improve coverage while maintaining or reducing premium costs.

Yet, despite the times not being the best for employees from a remuneration point of view, there was an extraordinary atmosphere in the company. Young, creative, very smart people were working there, totally electrified by Steve’s influence, even though we were not even on the same continent.

We used to have regular interactive, live satellite TV where Steve would address all employees in the region. We would gather in the company auditorium, and the crowd would go wild, cheering and clapping hands when he was presenting new products and telling us where he wanted the company to go. His personality was so strong that it really did influence what people were doing. Routinely in meetings, they would say “Steve will like this, or he won’t like that”.

Yes, Steve Jobs was a kind of genius, driven, with very high standards. He was also famous for his bouts of anger, sending teams back to the drawing table after months of work if the results did not meet exactly his expectations.

Steve liked France and Paris, and he would visit at least once a year. My, how much preparation went into that ! Steve himself knew what he wanted (this kind of food, that brand of water – he was very focused on macrobiotic food), but at heart he was a simple, regular man, wearing his trademark jeans and black polo. At the time we were looking to relocate our France and European HQ to a very prestigious location in central Paris, and Steve himself was following up on the project, flying in on a regular basis with his architect to discuss with the building owner – he wanted to create an atrium and a 2 or 3 storeys tunnel of light in the middle of this building, which the owner did not want to do. In the end, it did not work out, and a few years later, the Europe team was relocated to London and the first French Apple Store was open in Carrousel du Louvre.

Steve was also famous for making decisions very quickly. One day I discovered that first hand in Compensation & Benefits !

That morning I arrived in the office, and on the first page of the intranet I read that Steve had bought a company in one the European countries and that their employees were now part of Apple. I jumped on my feet in shock. What ? And we had not been involved in HR ? This was in a heavily unionised country, with rigid regulations…

My functional boss, the Head of Global C&B, then called me – it was midnight on the West Coast and she said : “Sandrine have you seen the announcement ? No-one in Corporate was involved, I am at the airport with another C&B colleague, we are flying to Europe now, jump on the first plane and meet us there tomorrow. We have to sit with the company HR, our local country HR has to join us there, and we have to perform due diligence and trade union negotiations as soon as possible if we don’t want the deal to break ! Let’s hope they don’t have massive pension liabilities !”. This marked the beginning of the craziest week of pre/post merger due diligence in my life 🙂

Eventually we sorted everything out, were able to satisfy the employee representatives and trade unions, and ensure a smooth transition. Their product is now part of the software offered on every single Apple Computer, as well as a pro version focused on the creative industry.

Even though I eventually left Apple, I formed some of my closest friendships there, and I always fondly remember my time there, the buzz, the creativity, and an environment where we never did the same thing twice. It was thrilling !

I never met Steve personally, yet he did have a direct impact on my life, and today I share the grief with all his current and former employees. I recently lost a very close family member to cancer, and understand the harrowing battle against the disease. At least now he is in peace… Goodbye Steve !

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