The decade of Steve

How Apple's imperious, brilliant CEO transformed American business.

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By Adam Lashinsky, editor at large

steve_jobs_sept_09.gi.03.jpg
Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple
What is your favorite Apple product?
  • iMac/MacBook
  • iPod
  • iPhone
  • iTunes

(Fortune magazine) -- How's this for a gripping corporate story line: Youthful founder gets booted from his company in the 1980s, returns in the 1990s, and in the following decade survives two brushes with death, one securities-law scandal, an also-ran product lineup, and his own often unpleasant demeanor to become the dominant personality in four distinct industries, a billionaire many times over, and CEO of the most valuable company in Silicon Valley.

Sound too far-fetched to be true? Perhaps. Yet it happens to be the real-life story of Steve Jobs and his outsize impact on everything he touches.

The past decade in business belongs to Jobs. What makes that simple statement even more remarkable is that barely a year ago it seemed likely that any review of his accomplishments would be valedictory. But by deeds and accounts, Jobs is back.

It's as if his signature "one more thing" line now applies to him as well. After a six-month leave of absence in the early part of this year, during which he received a liver transplant, he is once again commanding a 34,000-strong corporate army that is as powerful, awe-inspiring, creative, secretive, bullying, arrogant -- and yes, profitable -- as at any time since he and his chum Steve Wozniak founded Apple (AAPL, Fortune 500) in 1976.

Superlatives have attached themselves to Jobs since he was a young man. Now that he's 54, merely listing his achievements is sufficient explanation of why he's Fortune's CEO of the Decade (though the superlatives continue). In the past 10 years alone he has radically and lucratively reordered three markets -- music, movies, and mobile telephones -- and his impact on his original industry, computing, has only grown.

Remaking any one business is a career-defining achievement; four is unheard-of. Think about that for a moment. Henry Ford altered the course of the nascent auto industry. PanAm's Juan Trippe invented the global airline. Conrad Hilton internationalized American hospitality.

In all instances, and many more like them, these entrepreneurs turned captains of industry defined a single market that had previously not been dominated by anyone. The industries that Jobs has turned topsy-turvy already existed when he focused on them.

He is the rare businessman with legitimate worldwide celebrity. (His quirks and predilections are such common knowledge that they were knowingly parodied on an episode of "The Simpsons.") He pals around with U2's Bono.

Consumers who have never picked up an annual report or even a business magazine gush about his design taste, his elegant retail stores, and his outside-the-box approach to advertising. ("Think different," indeed.)

It's often noted that he's a showman, a born salesman, a magician who creates a famed reality-distortion field, a tyrannical perfectionist. It's totally accurate, of course, and the descriptions contribute to his legend.

Yet for all his hanging out with copywriters and industrial designers and musicians -- and despite his anticorporate attire -- make no mistake: Jobs is all about business. He may not pay attention to customer research, but he works slavishly to make products customers will buy.

He's a visionary, but he's grounded in reality too, closely monitoring Apple's various operational and market metrics. He isn't motivated by money, says friend Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle (ORCL, Fortune 500). Rather, Jobs is understandably driven by a visceral ardor for Apple, his first love (to which he returned after being spurned -- proof that you can go home again) and the vehicle through which he can be both an arbiter of cool and a force for changing the world.

The financial results have been nothing short of astounding -- for Apple and for Jobs. The company was worth about $5 billion in 2000, just before Jobs unleashed Apple's groundbreaking "digital lifestyle" strategy, understood at the time by few critics. Today, at about $170 billion, Apple is slightly more valuable than Google (GOOG, Fortune 500).

Its market share in personal computers was plummeting back then, and the cash drain was so severe that bankruptcy was a possibility. Now Apple has $34 billion in cash and marketable securities, surpassing the total market cap of rival Dell (DELL, Fortune 500). Macintoshes make up 9% of the PC market in the U.S. today, but that share is increasingly beside the point.

With 275 retail stores in nine countries, a 73% share of the U.S. MP3 player market, and the undisputed leadership position in innovation when it comes to mobile phones, Apple and its CEO are no one's idea of underdogs anymore.

In 2006 Disney (DIS, Fortune 500) paid $7.5 billion to acquire Pixar, the computer animation film studio Jobs had nurtured and controlled. Jobs, in turn, became a Disney director and the blue-chip company's largest shareholder. His net worth, solely based on his stakes in Apple and Disney, is about $5 billion. Other executives have had stellar decades but none can compare with Steve's.

With Jobs back at the helm of his company, plenty of challenges lie ahead. Will the Goliath role suit him nearly as well as playing David clearly has? How will he respond to the competition he has awakened, particularly in smartphones, even as the personal computer fades in relative importance? Has he fashioned an organization that can succeed him? Can he possibly be as dominant in the decade to come as the one that is ending?

The "decade" of Steve actually began in 1997, when he returned to Apple after having been ousted a dozen years earlier. That was a year of triage, of a humbling investment from Microsoft (MSFT, Fortune 500), of paring Apple's product line to a bare minimum of four computers.

Company Price Change % Change
Facebook Inc 75.25 3.96 5.55%
Qualcomm Inc 75.89 -5.71 -7.00%
Ford Motor Co 18.03 0.25 1.41%
Yahoo! Inc 35.38 0.67 1.93%
Apple Inc 96.69 -0.50 -0.51%
Data as of 10:07am ET
Index Last Change % Change
Dow 17,085.60 -1.03 -0.01%
Nasdaq 4,466.07 -7.63 -0.17%
S&P 500 1,986.47 -0.54 -0.03%
Treasuries 2.51 0.04 1.75%
Data as of 10:22am ET
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