Today in Apple history: ‘The Diesel’ becomes Apple COO

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Apple CEO Michael Spindler headed the company during trying times in the 1990s.
Michael Spindler's COO promotion put him on the path to being named future chief executive.
Image: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

January 29: Today in Apple history: Michael H. Spindler, aka 'The Diesel,' is named new Apple COO January 29, 1990: Apple CEO John Sculley appoints Michael H. Spindler as the company’s new chief operating officer.

Nicknamed “The Diesel” on account of his work ethic, Spindler’s new job continues his upward trajectory at Apple. Three years later, he will become CEO.

Carving out a name for himself

Born in Germany, Spindler started his career working at the Paris-based European subsidiary of DEC, before moving to the European sales office for Intel. There, he made friends with Mike Markkula, who went on to become Apple’s first major angel investor and its second CEO.

In 1980, Markkula recruited Spindler to work in marketing in Apple’s European office, shortly after the Apple II first went on sale. According to legend, Spindler went months without a paycheck from Apple because the company couldn’t figure out how to send funds to Belgium from California.

Apple Europe became a big success, and Sculley quickly recognized Spindler for his hard work. In 1983, Apple promoted Spindler to executive vice president of marketing. As a result, he began working a couple days per month in Cupertino.

A great strategist, Spindler was well-liked by Sculley. One of his big achievements was helping bring to market KanjiTalk, which allowed the Mac to offer a Japanese-language interface. It became a big hit.

Michael Spindler rises through the ranks at Apple

After Steve Jobs left Apple in 1985, Spindler got some attention for delivering a passionate speech about the company. It ended with the line: “Apple beats with two hearts — our California heart and the heart of the local company.”

Spindler’s next promotion made him head of Apple Europe. At around this time, an executive named Jean-Louis Gassée — who took over the Mac division after Jobs left — experienced a stumble in his upward trajectory at Apple. Due to component shortages in 1989, specialist parts became pricier. Gassée didn’t want to sacrifice profit margins, and raised the price of high-end Macs by nearly 29 percent. The move proved disastrous.

While the U.S. division struggled, however, Apple Europe fared much better. In just a couple of years, sales in Europe grew from $400 million to $1.2 billion. This meant that Apple Europe made up a quarter of Apple’s overall business.

Spindler became Apple’s chief operating officer in January 1990. It was a questionable choice, since Spindler was more suited to strategy than an operations role. Shortly after he assumed the position, Gassée left Apple.

Spindler’s rise continues

This wasn’t the end of Spindler’s rise. When Sculley was ousted as CEO in 1993, Spindler became Apple CEO. Although he made a number of correct calls in this job, it was also one of Apple’s lowest points in history. The company suffered through collapsing Mac sales, massive layoffs and a $188 million quarterly loss.

Spindler also oversaw disastrous projects like the never-completed Copland operating system. He left Apple in 1996, replaced by Gil Amelio.

Do you remember the Michael Spindler era at Apple? Let us know in the comments below.

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