Especially since his death, Steve Jobs has become a god to many in IT and design. As a new film on his life is to be released, Michael Moynihan meets up with an Irishman who worked closely with the former Apple head
Dan Byrne’s first encounter with Steve Jobs wasn’t promising.
The Corkman was in California making a presentation to the board of Apple Computer when Jobs, now the subject of a major motion picture with Kerryman Michael Fassbender playing the title role, strolled in.
“He sat down and put his feet up on the table. His bare feet. I was thinking, ‘will this thing ever fly?’” It was 1980 and Byrne was working for AnCo, the forerunner of Fás. His background in issuing grants to the hi-tech sector gave him a good handle on the industry and when the IDA opened negotiations with Apple they asked Byrne to accompany their man in San Francisco, Declan Collins, to the discussions. The barefoot boss was one culture shock, but there were others.
“We were there on a Friday and everything shut down,” recalls Byrne. “The staff all headed to a nearby park, where they had pizza and soft drinks, and played frisbee. They’d met their quota so everyone got a half-day.
“I remember thinking, ‘if this happened at home they’d be in the pub, not throwing frisbees around Fitzgerald’s Park’. But I was wrong. That culture was adopted very quickly in the plant in Cork.” Jobs wasn’t directly involved in the Apple decision to locate in Cork – more about that anon – but he visited Leeside on occasions when the company put down roots in Hollyhill, and when Byrne joined Apple later they interacted on a number of occasions.
“We weren’t great buddies, I’d emphasise that,” says Byrne. “And he wouldn’t have been monitoring the Cork plant himself, because Cork reported into the Apple II division and at the time he headed the Macintosh division. But he’d have been over and back to us.
“These guys are icons now, but they weren’t at the time. Jobs was a senior executive in a start-up company, not royalty. He was treated the same as any other visitor – he’d have stayed in the old Jury’s Hotel on the Western Road in Cork.
“We’d have told the management there that senior people were coming and asked them to look after those people, but it wasn’t a matter of rolling out the presidential suite, and Apple would have frowned on that anyway. It was very much a non-hierarchical culture.” Byrne calls Jobs a genius: “No doubt about that. The results spoke for themselves.
“But he could be extremely unpredictable, almost petulant, in addition to being a tough businessman. Walter Isaacson’s book about him refers to the ‘reality distortion field’ he could put around himself, where Steve would say something that he believed – genuinely – would come true, even if it had no chance of ever happening.
“That was true, certainly. I saw it myself.” Byrne and another Apple manager, Eddie O’Shea, were once asked to meet Jobs in order to convince him to manufacture the Macintosh for the European market in Cork.
“The team in Cork pulled a full presentation together and we went to California with a strong case. Eddie and I spent a whole week convincing the finance person, the HR person, the manufacturing person – Steve’s entire team, one by one – that we were right. This was the right thing to do for Apple and for Europe.”
On the Friday Byrne and O’Shea came in to make their presentation to Steve’s weekly management meeting.
“Steve was half an hour late to the meeting, which was fairly typical. He saw us and said, ‘oh, is there something about Ireland on the agenda?’ “He knew well there was. I stood up and said, ‘Steve, there is an item on the agenda – we want to build the Macintosh for Europe in Cork, and I have a presentation here I’ve shared with your team and I’d like to share it with you’. This was before PowerPoint, I had an overhead projector, and my slides, ready to go.
“And Steve said ‘no’.” Jobs said the Macintosh would never be built outside California, that the decision had been made. Byrne reminded Jobs of a previous visit to Cork, when he had thanked the employees for making Apple so successful and they’d been delighted with the praise.
“I said, ‘Those people aren’t going to be that happy now, Steve, because the Apple II is going down and we’re only building the Apple II. Those people aren’t going to have jobs. ‘No problem,’ said Jobs, ‘We’ll bring them to California.’ That was the reality distortion field, right there.
“I said they wouldn’t want to move all the way to California, there’d be issues with work permits, all of that – ‘no problem, we’ll make it work’.
“I never got the chance to use my slides. And none of his team came to our defence, either – the guys who were strong for the idea on Monday weren’t as strong about it on Friday.” Incidentally, Byrne says Jobs didn’t select Cork as a location, though there’s a yarn behind that too.
“When I joined Declan in California back in 1980 the negotiations were advanced at that stage, but there were still some rumblings questioning Ireland as the ideal location. There was a lot of lobbying at senior executive level for different locations.” A Liverpudlian on the board proposed his home town, while another executive favoured Holland, because of its proximity to mainland Europe.
“We were able to wax lyrical about the education system and the demographics,” recalls Byrne. “The fact we had an advance factory built helped, too – Apple was growing at a rate of knots and here was a factory ready, which no other location had.
“But the real issue was that Carl Carlson, then head of operations for Apple, who reported directly to the CEO, had run a factory in Dublin in a previous existence. His experience of Irish people was very positive and he overruled his subordinates by opting for Cork.
“That was it. I’ve heard a lot of talk about tax recently, but Apple’s decision to move to Cork had nothing to do with tax. Zero. Nobody mentioned the word when we were negotiating with them.” The decision was made to locate in Cork in March 1980, and the first product rolled off the line that October: the fastest start-up in the history of the IDA.
It’s a strand of the Jobs story that’ll hardly figure in the upcoming movie, but to Byrne making a film about Jobs was a no-brainer.
“No, it didn’t surprise me they made a movie about him,” he says. “A flawed genius is how I’d describe him. If I were a Hollywood producer I’d have gone after that story as well. There was so much to him.”
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