It’s lunchtime at the European headquarters of the world’s biggest company.
The in-house restaurant, perched in a quiet corner of Cork’s northside, teems with Apple employees from every conceivable nationality, while at one table a Spaniard explains the technology giant’s secret to success.
“It’s the start-up spirit,” he says enthusiastically. “It is still here.”
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The words are those of a charismatic yet unassuming Galician named Alfonso who just happens to be responsible for the logistics of Apple’s 110 retail stores across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.
“Years ago, we were like the underdog, we were really 5% of the marketplace and we only did computers, but that small company spirit never went away.”
The irony of the conversation, however, isn’t lost on anyone.
Here, deep within the walls of not only the world’s largest company but one of its most secretive too, we’re discussing the start-up spirit of a business recently valued at $1trn (€900bn) with a guy responsible for the logistics of more than a hundred international Apple retail stores in one of the few European countries in which there are none.
Throw into the mix the peculiar sight of a global technology giant sharing a patch of grass with a halting site and its resident horses ambling about and the peculiarity of the situation ratchets up a notch or two.
Despite the ironies and peculiarities, however, the conversation provides a snapshot of the Apple experience: A previously closed book, opening itself up to the world and exposing some of the idiosyncrasies that make it unique, and uniquely successful.
Alfonso’s “love affair” with Ireland and the company is nothing special. With 15 years under his belt, neither is the longevity of his stay.
Among the 4,000-strong workforce, a sense of opportunity suggests that those willing to work hard can climb the ladder in a job they almost unanimously say they wouldn’t swap for the world.
Many now in senior management have been here for decades and watched the company’s Irish footprint evolve from a manufacturing facility with 60 staff 30 years ago into the most crucial cog of the ever-expanding Apple empire outside of its Cupertino base in northern California.
Today, its Irish operations serve a variety of roles ranging from sales support; distribution; technology support and customer care; mapping and manufacturing.
Its thousands of employees makes it the largest private employer in Cork with over €100m invested in the country’s second city since 2009 and a further 2,500 jobs supported locally.
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Being the biggest and — in many people’s eyes — the best brings a certain level of scrutiny, however.
The European Commission, in particular, has taken a keen interest in Apple’s tax affairs of late, which led last June to it launching a probe to determine if Ireland improperly afforded Apple state aid in the form of lower corporation tax rates.
Apple and the Department of Finance both insist there’s no case to answer but the company has said an adverse finding could make a “material” impact to the business, if it is forced to fork out past taxes to the State.
For a company with $194bn in cash and securities, the greater impact may well be reputational if such a situation arises but, in any case, it’s not a topic on the lips of those in Hollyhill.
As renovation works continue in the foreground to bring the rest of the campus up to scratch with the gleaming standard of what is known as Building Five, some of the most crucial cogs in the Apple machine continue turning within.
The only Apple-owned manufacturing facility in the world churns out iMacs; hundreds of workers help customers across the globe with technical issues; while others, from deep within darkened studios resembling something out of Hollywood’s finest back catalogue walk excited owners through setting up their latest gadget via videolink in an eclectic range of languages.
All around those of the 4,000 housed in Building Five are self-regulating glass wall “active facades”, rainwater harvesting equipment, solar vacuums, and a host of other cutting-edge solutions which combine to make Hollyhill one of the country’s most environmentally friendly offices and a uniquely interesting example of what can be achieved by business in reducing its carbon footprint.
Not content with being the biggest and the best, it appears Apple is hell-bent on being the greenest too.
“Imagine Apple with no iPod, no iPhone,” Alfonso says after an in-depth discussion on his love of Irish mythology, and Cú Chulainn in particular, that adds another wrinkle or two of intrigue to the day’s events. “We are always disrupting the market.”
And he’s right. Just as the original Macintosh revolutionised PCs, the iPod altered music, the iPad made what had previously only envisaged by science fiction writers a reality, and the iPhone has changed the way we communicate.
And therein lies Apple’s success; its simple, beautiful, disruptive technologies.
Few would bet against Apple Watch following suit in the same manner for wearable technology either.
One thing you needn’t wager on, however, is which Apple employees will be staring back at you as you strap it to your wrist and begin the set-up. The odds are good that it’ll be of the 4,000 on the northside of Cork City.