AT the Cupertino office of the beleaguered US giant, Apple Computer Inc., a massive drive is on to eliminate the worm in its operations. For the second quarter of fiscal 1996, the company announced a $740 million loss and plans to shed over 1,500 jobs. Hounded by Wall Street and the financial media for its flagging performance, it has ousted chief executive Michael Spindler, narrowly survived a merger with Sun Microsystems, and brought in Gil Amelio to supervise the spring cleaning. The new CEO has overhauled the top management so fast that those who got up from their chairs, the story goes, found it reoccupied before they could ease themselves back.
Amid the executioner's roll call, one man from Amritsar quietly picked up the pieces, and added a few to his name. He is 45, has pent seven years at Apple and 13 before that at IBM and Xerox, and now his designation is Senior Vice-President of Corporate Marketing, and General Manager of the Entertainment, New Media and Internet Division, Apple Computer, Inc. Satjiv Chahil believes that the Mac is still the top choice of the multimedia industry. He has reason to. As head of the multimedia division, apart from his other responsibilities, he is in charge of one of the most dynamic areas at Apple, one that offers it hope for salvation.
Says Chahil: "In the mid-'80s we put a smile on the personal computer, now we're going to put a smile on the Internet. It's a challenging time. If I let it be demoralising, then it's over. I keep saying, we have to do marketing in the line of fire. If we hesitate or stand still, it's over. People are saying our mission is impossible. Well then, they should expect the impossible." At his Los Altos home on a work-crammed Saturday, in black jeans, T-shirt and matching turban, Chahil climbs easily out of his glamorous avatar, one that hobnobs with rock star Peter Gabriel and director Martin Scorsese as part of corporate marketing exercises, into a family-oriented, close-to-roots self. His jet-setting lifestyle leaves little time for anything else but Chahil's learnt to juggle several roles together. His expansive house is impeccably decorated with handsome artefacts and he manages it, alone, much like his work, supervising everything himself.
Educated at Lawrence School, Sanawar, Chahil opted for commerce at Punjab University, Chandigarh, studying German on the side. "I was not smart enough to get into engineering college," he says modestly. Instead, he made his way to the US, for a masters in international management from the American (Thunderbird) Graduate School of International Management. Two jobs later, he came to Apple, where he finally found the right attitude—the international approach to business—that he had been in search of.
As part of his focus on innovative advertising, Chahil was responsible for the spectacular advertisement that premiered at the Motion Pictures Academy Awards, showing off the BMW World
Wide Web site on an Apple computer. "I knew that someone at Apple was finally getting it," wrote Don Crabb in MacWeek. "That someone is Satjiv Chahil. That something he and his advertising team have gotten is a new campaign designed to show the Mac as a cool, powerful, gotta-have-it device that it always has been."
The logical corollary was a flirtation with Hollywood. Apple spent $15 million, 10 per cent of the budget for non-traditional advertisements, on Tom Cruise's new film, Mission: Impossible. "I was running business units when Spindler said I need your help on corporate marketing. That's when I stepped into the hot seat." This was exciting too; it meant dealing with people like Michael Eisner of Disney, film critics Siskel and Ebert, and rock group Eurythmics to discuss ways to marry technology and creativity.
The Internet is one of Apple's thrust areas and Chahil is quick to point out that Apple is the No. 1 web authoring platform, with over 40 per cent marketshare, and the No. 2 server after Sun Microsystems. "We're the easiest way to use Internet on the PC, and we're first in the world with the lowest cost web browser. So we're all over the Net." And there's Pippin too, a PC which connects to a TV, with ports to connect to the information highway, which was developed under his direction. Now being marketed in Japan, Pippin could be in America this fall, retailing at around $600.
He pauses to bring up the Hakone Forum in a multimedia presentation on his sleek Mac laptop, which he describes as a "mega sort of summit" of top global companies in Hakone, Japan, in August 1992. Chahil was its chief architect. "That's where the concept of multimedia really started. I spent three months trying to get IBM, Microsoft and other companies to make an industry front and no one would do it. So I went to John Sculley (former Apple CEO) and said why don't we do it. We'll ship a million CD-ROM players into the market and give it momentum." A new multimedia division was created, and Chahil was put in charge to "make things happen".
Is being Indian a disadvantage? "There are two sides to the thing," he smiles. "On the one hand, one is different. The other is that everyone tries so damn hard to stand out. So either one can get intimidated by one's differences, or one tries to benefit from it."
What's it like to work with the new boss? "Amazing, simply staggering.'' Apple CEOs have traditionally been high-profile, and Chahil has worked closely with three. "The difficulty you often have with bosses is when you have to tell them everything, to start from zero each time. But now, Amelio, when I started, told me, 'You should know something about me, how I think and see this world'. He said when you're landing you always look towards the horizon. You never look down otherwise you'll crash your plane. To be forward looking and yet be a world-class scientist...he has 16 patents to his name! Everyday I learn something from him."
For Sculley he claimed ever-increasing marketshares in Japan as well as advising him on business connected to India. "He used to keep saying to me, 'I can't get anything done in America and you've turned Japan outside down.' He was very creative and a visionary. But the US media is very binary, just like Silicon Valley. They make a guy into God and then trash him to nothing." Spindler, on the other hand, "was a sort of international conscience for Apple. He had once given a speech which I often refer to, saying that Apple must have two hearts—the Apple heart, and the local country's heart."
When Spindler left, Chahil was one of his trusted coterie of lieutenants. He had taken over corporate marketing, a potential mine-field. "I had a pretty decent reputation in what I did, but then I thought it over...either you run from a challenge or you rise to it. If there's one consistency in my background, I've always taken on tasks that people didn't want or those that were very high-risk."
He's consistent in another area, too. He visits India once a year, and his parents go over as frequently. Is there a single reason for his success? "Probably my family's constant prayers for me," he quips. From the sardar who's made a success out of challenge-surfing, that's probably the most understated bottom line.