The day Sun Microsystems nearly bought Apple

From Inc.’s “25 Years Ago, Apple Nearly Made a Fatal Mistake. These 10 Short Words Saved It” posted Sunday:

It all goes back to a single day, 25 years ago: January 31, 1996, starting around 8 a.m., when Apple’s board of directors met in the offices of its New York City law firm.

There were two items on the agenda, according to an account by Gil Amelio, who was a member of the board at the time and whose name will become quite familiar to you shortly, if you don’t know it already.

    • Item #1: a proposal to sell Apple outright to Sun Microsystems.
    • Item #2: a plan to bring in Amelio as CEO.

As Amelio recounted in his 1998 book, On the Firing Line: My 500 Days at Apple, the deal to sell Apple to Sun came very close to happening. He was impressed by Sun’s presentation, until the moment when Sun’s CEO and founder, Scott McNealy, wouldn’t commit to keeping the Apple brand alive (as opposed to rebranding everything under “Sun”).

The idea of dumping “Apple” was a “huge red flag,” Amelio wrote…

Still, Amelio said he felt he had to stay part of the discussion to find out what Sun would pay for Apple. In his telling, this is where it all fell apart.

Apple’s stock was trading at about $28 a share; Amelio expected to hear a pitch of at least $30. Instead, Sun offered $23 a share.

Amelio rejected it with 10 words: “Scott, that’s impossible. I can’t get behind that at all.”

My take: Amelio will be remembered best for bringing Steve Jobs back a few hundred days later.

10 Comments

  1. Mordechai Beizer said:
    A dramatic headline maybe but quite puffed up. Amelio could have just said “thank you for your presentation we’ll get back to you”. Fact is, Sun did not “nearly buy Apple” with a proposal that was so far underwater. It would have had to be rejected by the board and Amelio had little choice but to tell Sun to go away. I wonder what Scott McNealy thought he was doing going in with a non-viable proposal.

    Where is Sun nowadays?

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    January 11, 2021
  2. Greg Lippert said:
    Just think of how the (tech) + world would be different.
    That would have been one heck of a ripple effect.

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    January 11, 2021
  3. Jerry Doyle said:
    “…. Could it be that this smart, capable business icon was unaware the Apple brand name was something not only worth keeping but worth nurturing and promoting?”

    In July 1997 I was downstairs in the breakfast area of the Hilton early in the morning putting my thoughts together on what I would say in an entry conference scheduled later that morning. The TV above was tuned to CNBC. Anchors were discussing the day’s business headline that Gil Amelio was out as Apple CEO. The anchors discussed how Apple would go bankrupt. I rolled my eyes, shaking my head, realizing as I do so often how talking heads sometimes are so removed from understanding the obvious. Here, the obvious was the Apple Brand. I said to myself someone will buy that company to assume the Apple brand. Quality brand names are so critical. Figuring I would make a quick profit by buying the suppressed shares and later flipping them once the company was acquired I bought shares for myself, and I also bought $3,500 worth for my young daughter. I had no idea that Steve Jobs would assume the CEO role on an interim basis. I ruled out flipping the shares. I keep and manage my daughter’s Apple shares for her. Not a single share has ever been sold. I just looked at her portfolio and that $3,500 investment today is worth $4,641,013.63. The Apple brand name was something not only worth keeping, but worth nurturing and promoting.

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    January 11, 2021
    • Jacob Feenstra said:
      Thanks for the anecdote, Jerry. I remember the time well. My wife and I were still into mutuals and I was hesitant to get into stocks directly. Then later when the AAPL market cap fell below its actual cash holdings we should have jumped in all the more. We waited for more than a year. Still, we’re grateful for the ride. Only last week we sold some stock to buy a house again.

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      January 11, 2021
  4. Gregg Thurman said:
    Only last week we sold some stock to buy a house again.

    Given Apple’s emerging product line and AAPL’s trajectory that’s going to be an awfully expensive house. ; )

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    January 11, 2021
    • Jacob Feenstra said:
      You are right, Gregg. This is why we are working on the sale of some other property we have as well as a bank loan to pour most of it back into AAPL.

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      January 11, 2021
  5. Bob Goldstein said:
    My story is almost the same as Jacob’s. I was a long time listener of Bob Brinker and had been investing in no load mutual funds. I just did not think I had the background to invest in individual stocks.
    I had been very interested in Apple as I had been fascinated by my soon to be wife’s Mac Plus. I read everything I could read about Apple on various newsgroup discussion forums at the time.
    I felt strongly that Apple would be a great investment but we now had a baby son and I did not think it was prudent to make investment decisions so I stayed with mutual funds. When Apple crashed in 2000 after earnings I knew it was time to make my move so I made a large investment. I still have not sold a share

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    January 11, 2021
  6. Robert Paul Leitao said:
    Dr. Amelio did two things right. The first is he fought fiercely to keep Apple as an independent enterprise. He had a fiduciary responsibility to at least hear Sun’s proposal. The second is he chose to acquire NeXTSTEP as the core for Apple’s more modern OS initiative. This was a surprise decision. The markets were expecting Apple to acquire BeOS. The rest is history. Ultimately being ousted by Steve Jobs several months following the decision was an unintended consequence.

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    January 11, 2021

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