‘Coach’ Bill Campbell leaves legacy of Silicon Valley stars

Long-term trusted adviser to tech giants died this week

William Campbell (L), who died this week. He is pictured with  investor Allison Butts. Photograph: Bloomberg

William Campbell (L), who died this week. He is pictured with investor Allison Butts. Photograph: Bloomberg

 

Bill Campbell, one of the most influential background players in Silicon Valley, who was known as “coach” there for his work advising technology industry stars such as Steve Jobs at Apple and Larry Page at Google, has died at his home in Palo Alto, California. He was 75.

His family said the cause was cancer.

Mr Campbell had exerted a strong influence on Apple and Google, two of the world’s most valuable companies, since the 1980s. Operating in a network of billionaire technology innovators, he was known for making informal but lasting personal connections that helped shape the industry.

The term “coach” was a reference to his days coaching the Columbia University football team from 1974 to 1979 – he had also played for Columbia – but it applied as well to his business career.

As recently as the end of March, John Doerr, one of the valley’s leading venture capitalists, publicly cited “Coach Bill Campbell’s” advice when Mr Doerr announced that he would give up his executive role at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and become its first chairman.

Apple

Mr Campbell was an Eastman Kodak executive in Europe when he was recruited to Silicon Valley in 1983 by Apple’s chief executive at the time, John Sculley. Mr Sculley named him vice president of marketing. Mr Campbell later played a significant role in Apple’s spectacular turnaround when Steve Jobs, who had been fired by Mr Sculley, returned to the company in 1997. Apple went on to revamp its Mac computer line and introduce the iPod, iPhone and iPad.

Mr Campbell was an Apple director from 1997 until 2014.

It was Mr Doerr who brought Mr Campbell to Google to serve as an informal adviser to the two founders, Mr Page and Sergey Brin. Mr Campbell was instrumental in the hiring of Eric Schmidt to be Google’s chief executive in August 2001.

Strikingly, Mr Campbell’s advisory role was often unpaid, at his insistence; he said he wanted to pay back what he felt was a debt to the nation’s technology region.

At Google, for example, he helped shape its leadership for a generation or more but, except for a single stock grant, never had a formal financial relationship with the company, according to Mr Schmidt, who is now Google’s chairman.

“Google would not be the company it is today without the influence of Bill Campbell,” Mr Schmidt said, “and my guess is Apple wouldn’t be, either.”

Jeff Bezos

Mr Campbell also worked early on with Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, as well as Ben Horowitz and Marc Andreessen before they founded one of the country’s top venture capital firms, Andreessen Horowitz.

Mr Campbell was deeply involved in Silicon Valley’s start-up culture as well. In 1987 he led a group of Apple executives in setting up a software subsidiary, Claris, with the ultimate goal of spinning the company off as a start-up. When Apple decided not to let Claris become a separate public company, many of the executives, including Mr Campbell, left.

He later helped found and became chief executive of Go Corp, a pioneering tablet computer company that fought a long and ultimately unsuccessful battle with Microsoft. From 1994 until 1998, he was chief executive of Intuit, a personal finance software company.

Mr Campbell was known for his informality. Randy Komisar, a partner at Kleiner Perkins who had been a young lawyer at Apple, recalled Mr Campbell running down a hall one day and dragging him into a dark conference room to tell him he was starting the software company that would become Claris.

Without saying anything about title or compensation, Mr Campbell looked at him across the table and simply asked, “Are you in, or are you out?”

New York Times Service