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If you want a perfect example of a corporate phoenix rising from the ashes, then few companies better fit the bill than Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) .
Apple Computer was founded in California in 1976 by Steve Jobs, Steve "Woz" Wozniak, and "forgotten founder" Ronald Wayne. That same year, Wayne gave up his 10% stake in the firm for a total of $2,300. Today, this holding would be worth $32 billion, making Wayne the world's fourth-richest person!
The early years of Apple were all about personal computers, including models such as the now-legendary Apple II series (1977), which I used as a schoolboy. Unfortunately, the Apple III (1980) was poorly received, as was the Lisa (1983).
However, in 1984, Apple hit the jackpot with the first of its Macintosh ("Mac") range, the sales of which were boosted by a groundbreaking advertising campaign modeled on George Orwell's 1984. Likewise, the Mac's intuitive graphical user interface became the foundation for modern-day computers.
Sorry, no Jobs
Companies often stumble when a founding CEO departs, and Apple was no exception to this trend. Following a power struggle with CEO John Sculley, Jobs left Apple in 1985 to launch NeXT, a maker of high-end computer workstations.
In 1991, Apple launched the PowerBook, seen as the successful prototype for today's lightweight-yet-powerful laptop computers. Indeed, the PowerBook range ran for 15 years until superseded in 2006.
In the early '90s, Apple started slipping up, launching ill-fated products such as the Performa and Newton ranges. Furthermore, the company's sales were hit as low-cost PCs powered by Microsoft Windows gobbled up market share.
A golden Apple
Even though Apple underwent a commercial comeback between 1994 and 1997, its share price headed steadily south. Quarterly dividends were cancelled in November 1995 and never returned. Its share price dwindled from over $12 in mid-1995 to under $3.50 in mid-1997.
However, millions of Apple fans never lost faith and continued to sing the praises of the company's innovative products (and buy its shares). After mass layoffs in 1996, the faithful were rewarded with the return of Steve Jobs as CEO in 1997. That same year, the online Apple Store was launched, perfectly placed to take advantage of growing Internet usage.
In 1998, Apple launched the hugely successful iMac, designed by Brit Jonathan Ive and his team, which started selling in the millions. As well as radical designs for hardware, Apple broke ground with its new Mac OS X operating system, released in 2001.
2001 was also the year of the iPod music player, again designed by Ive's team, and saw the launch of "killer app" iTunes, which celebrated its 10th birthday last week. In 2003, Apple's iTunes Store opened for business, selling music downloads for less than $1 each. Today, iTunes is the largest online store of its kind, with more than 10 billion downloads.
I'll skate over the rest of Apple's recent history in a few words: iPhone, iPad, App Store, MacBook Air, Snow Leopard, Apple TV, The Beatles on iTunes, yada, yada.
How was Apple polished?
In 13 years, Apple's share price has risen a hundredfold and, as I write, has just breached $346 for the first time. Today, the iconic company is worth $319 billion, making it the world's biggest technology company by market cap. For the record, Apple overtook Microsoft in May 2010 to take this coveted No. 1 slot.
In 2009-10, Apple recorded yearly sales of over $65 billion -- more than 10 times its 2003 revenue. Gross margins of nearly 40% helped the company to record net income of $14 billion, 70% ahead of its 2008-09 result. Hence, the company's cash pile is mushrooming: $47 billion and counting.
How did Apple become such a financial juggernaut? I attribute its success to three things:
1. New (old) management
Steve Jobs' importance in Apple's turnaround cannot be underestimated. Also, the hardware and software bounty Jobs brought to the table when Apple bought NeXT in 1997 played a key role in its future success.
During Apple's wilderness years under CEOs John Sculley, Michael Spindler, and Gil Amelio, the company was rocked by management in-fighting and product mis-launches. Since Jobs returned, Apple has barely put a foot wrong. Indeed, when Jobs announced that he was taking a six-month sabbatical in 2009 to be treated for pancreatic cancer, Apple's share price dived.
2. Must-have products
To my mind, Apple's commercial success stems from its matchless ability to marry form and function to create sought-after consumer products. Thanks to designers such as Jonathan Ive, user-friendliness and desirability lie at the heart of the Apple approach. Nobody does it better.
In addition, Apple offers its customers a completely integrated package, consisting of unrivaled hardware, software, and online offerings. This integration makes Apple a commercial powerhouse, as when you buy one Apple product, you're tied in to the brand and likely to buy more.
3. Unmatched marketing
Finally, Apple is the supreme master of branding, marketing, and advertising, wowing both consumers and the media alike. More than any of its rivals, Apple has used elegant logos, cool slogans, and flamboyant advertising campaigns to place its products at the front of minds.
Despite its large cash pile, Apple would fail most value-investing tests, thanks to no dividend and a price-to-earnings ratio of around 22.
Nevertheless, with its vast "competitive moat" and plenty of room to grow its modest global market shares in laptops, desktops, and smartphones, I wouldn't bet against Apple's continuing ability to thrash the Standard & Poor's 500 index. If quality counts, then "the Big Apple" could one day see its shares hit $1,000. Who knows?
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