On the Firing Line

The Book of the Week is “On the Firing Line” by Gil Amelio with William L. Simon, published in 1998. In this informative book, Amelio chronicles his short tenure as Apple Computer’s CEO from early 1995 to mid 1997.

Some might say Amelio made a foolhardy decision to take on the challenge of turning Apple around, when he had a secure and promising future as the CEO of National Semiconductor, whose recovery he had spearheaded. Throughout the book, he discusses the series of difficulties he faced and admits his errors in judgment.

Amelio handed grist to his critics on a silver platter because he allowed his employees to talk to the media, which had a field day on many fronts. The media also played him for a fool.

There were numerous factors out of the CEO’s control that also gave him a tough time. His predecessor allowed extreme price cuts on Apple’s products, and the sales team was playing a short-sighted game– a vicious cycle every holiday season, whereby they would give deep last-minute discounts to retailers to move inventory, putting a better face than otherwise on the financial condition of the company, as its fiscal year started on October 1.

Amelio was distressed to find that the corporate culture was fragmented along departmental lines. The engineers worked on products the sales department had no intention of selling. “Apple never had an official statement of strategy – which inevitably means that every executive, and most managers, design their own versions. Everyone pursues their own goals, rowing frantically but each pulling in a different direction.” One reason was that managers knew the company was in dire financial straits and feared their projects were going to be cut.

Some thought Amelio desperate and a sellout for holding meetings with the enemy, Bill Gates, to propose making Apple products compatible with Microsoft products. Nonetheless, he was wary of Gates because Gates was unreasonably stingy in his negotiations.

With Amelio at the helm, performance of the desktop models improved tenfold but sales fell. He attributed this to the presence of a subjective element in people’s reaction to Apple “…irrelevant to product quality, and has … a lot to do with what they read in the newspapers and how comfortable they are with the state of the company.”

Read the book to learn: how Amelio was too trusting when he negotiated his employment contract; about the fronts on which he did make progress, and how he was done in by Steve Jobs.

53 thoughts on “On the Firing Line”

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