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Utah company holds up to Steve Jobs' vision

Published: Friday, Feb. 3 2012 12:10 p.m. MST

The Fetzer woodworking factory in West Valley City makes the wood tables for all Apple stores worldwide.

Lee Benson, All

Having just finished reading the remarkable biography of Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple Computer who died of cancer at the age of 56 in October, I closed the book, got in the car and promptly took a drive out to the Fetzer woodworking plant in West Valley City.

The book is full of stories about Jobs's legendary perfectionism and penchant for detail — and from various reports I was aware that Fetzer, the 102-year-old Utah company that made both the molding around the original tabernacle on Temple Square and the pulpit in the LDS Conference Center, is the supplier of the solid wood tables that hold up all things "i" at Apple stores worldwide.

The word on the street is that back when he brought them into the Apple family more than a decade ago, Jobs saw in the Utah company a penchant for detail and perfectionism to rival his own.

I figured people at the factory would have some terrific and very personal stories about the exacting, demanding way that Jobs, and by extension Apple, conducted business.

They could add a Utah perspective to the legacy of a man who almost single-mindedly changed and revolutionized the computer industry, the music industry, the phone industry, the camera industry, even the movie industry (especially animated film).

The changes he wrought came so fast, and so sure, that only hindsight brings them into full focus.

It wasn't until after reading Walter Isaacson's fine biography — it was released in October, almost concurrent with Jobs's death — that I began to appreciate everything that I have personally watched happen the past quarter-century without consciously realizing I was personally watching it happen.

Jobs's life story is proof, yet again, that genius isn't dead, that ingenuity never goes out of style — and a perfectionist and control freak really can change the world.

He will never win a Nobel Peace Prize, or a sportsmanship trophy, but his dogged determination to do things his way, with complete control and with no room for compromise or cutting corners, produced astonishing results while tipping conventional business models on their head.

Jobs's mantra — the public doesn't know what they want until you tell them — would have gotten him thrown out of every business school in the country, providing he'd stayed in college long enough to get thrown out.

In virtually every chapter of Isaacson's book there's an anecdote about Jobs putting product first, ahead of engineering, cost overruns, conventional wisdom, personal feelings and all arguments that it can't be done that way.

He was a micromanager of the first degree.

I was sure once I got the folks at Fetzer talking they would add to the lore.

But I didn't get them talking.

"We really can't comment about Apple, I'm sorry," said Eric Fetzer, the head of the company and a direct descendant of Kaspar Fetzer, the German immigrant who started the Utah business in 1909.

Eric said he's aware that various blogs and websites on the Internet list Fetzer as the company that supplies Apple with its beautiful solid-wood display tables, and while he could not deny those reports, he could decline to talk about them.

Mum was the word.

I drove from West Valley City to the Apple store in the Gateway Mall in downtown Salt Lake and asked one of the blue-shirt-wearing associates if it might be possible to talk to the manager about the store and its fixtures.

"I could get you a leader," said one of the employees, equally as pleasant and friendly as Eric Fetzer had been but also equally as uncooperative. "But I have to tell you, it's a very official Apple policy not to talk to the media."

He referred me to the Apple.com website where I could find contact information for corporate headquarters.

If I wanted, I could look it up right there on an Apple computer sitting on a Fetzer table.

Thanks anyway, I said, declining to take my impromptu Utah tribute to Steve Jobs's genius — and all the ways he changed my life and all of our lives — any further.

Even with him gone, his legacy is obviously in good hands.

Enough was enough. When they know what I want, they'll tell me.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday.

Email: benson@desnews.com

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