NEW YORK — As CEOs, Sam Walton, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs possessed common traits. They were tireless workers, demanding bosses and sticklers for detail. They were visionaries, too, who reshaped their respective industries.
Their companies faced similar challenges when their iconic leaders left the helm. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., post Walton, has grown while carrying on with many of his traditions, including the hokey Wal-Mart cheer. Microsoft Corp. carefully orchestrated Gates' departure over a two-year period to dampen the shock, but has since struggled to innovate. And now Apple Inc. is grappling with how to continue without Jobs, who after battling with health issues announced Wednesday he would step down and Tim Cook would run the company.
Some analysts believe Apple will have a rough time without Jobs. His showmanship is essential since he was selling products that people might want but don't really need, said Charles Fishman, author of "The Wal-Mart Effect."
"Wal-Mart was reliant on Sam's genius and insight — his charisma was a bonus," Fishman said. "The products that Steve Jobs is selling, you need charisma to sell them."
Many companies have foundered without their founder. Starbucks Corp., for instance, had to bring back Howard Schultz to revitalize the brand, and Dell Inc. did the same with Michael Dell. Companies whose net worth is tied up in their CEO, instead of the product, are the most vulnerable. Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc., for example, has made an annual profit only once since 2003, when its namesake leader was charged with securities fraud.
Apple is not quite so tied to its non-eponymous leader, some analysts say. Apple fans tend to want their iPhones, iPods and iPads simply because they think the product is superior — not because of Jobs' dramatic unveilings. So, if Apple can continue to introduce the best products, then it doesn't matter if it's Jobs or someone else is at the helm, they said.
"The products speak for themselves," said Paul Argenti, a professor at Dartmouth College.
One reason that companies like Wal-Mart and Microsoft have endured, analysts say, is that their founders weren't afraid to surround themselves with other strong leaders. That meant they left behind teams that could function without them. Gates, for instance, "used to get into screaming matches with some of his employees," said James Wallace, the author of two books about Gates, "Hard Drive" and "Overdrive."
"But he was looking for people who were willing to stand up and scream back," Wallace said.
Dave Thomas, the founder of the Wendy's hamburger chain, was constantly preparing Wendy's for the day when he'd leave, which made the transition smooth when he relinquished his daily responsibilities around the late '80s, said Denny Lynch, a company spokesman who traveled with Thomas for 20 years. "He was a man with a 10th grade education who surrounded himself with MBAs," Lynch said. "He understood the things he could do well and the things he couldn't."
How Apple will fare without Jobs remains to be seen. But companies like Microsoft and Wal-Mart can provide some clues.
Sam Walton, Wal-Mart founder
Walton's no-frills influence is still a part of the culture at Wal-Mart even though he relinquished the CEO role in 1988 and died four years later at age 74. The strategy, for the most part, has served the company well.
Mike Hicks, a Ball State economist and author of "The Local Economic Impact of Wal-Mart", noted how Wal-Mart has expanded in the past two decades while many other discount chains, such as Kmart and A&P, have struggled. Wal-Mart had nearly $420 billion in revenue last year, more than seven times the $55 billion it netted in 1992, when Walton died.
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