Obituaries

One Man Reflects on His Relationship With Bill Campbell

One Man Reflects on His Relationship With Bill Campbell

Bill Campbell (Intuit)

Image credit: C Flanigan/Stringer | Getty Images

Here’s my earliest memory of Bill Campbell. It was 1997, and I was new to Silicon Valley. As a columnist for the San Jose Mercury News, writing about technology stocks, I had a one-hour, get-to-know-each other meeting with Campbell, then CEO of Intuit. Sometime after that I began writing a series of columns about an arcane accounting trick technology companies were using to buff up the appearance of their financial results. It was called “in-process research and development,” and it was the sort of topic that appealed only to accountants, earnest newspaper columnists, and chief executives with an eye for detail.

I can’t recall the specifics -- he always did -- but I believe I knocked Intuit for its use of the technique, and Campbell was simultaneously outraged and excited by the challenge. Serendipitously, around that time I had a weekly night out in Palo Alto with a buddy of mine then attending Stanford Law School. We typically went to a dive bar called the Old Pro in a hangar-like building near the intersection of Oregon Expressway and El Camino Real. I say serendipitously because although I didn’t know it, this happened to be Bill Campbell’s hangout. He’d meet friends for beers after work, assuming one of his favorite positions and roles: bar stool pontificator. He laughed and shouted and swore. Oh how he swore, like the proverbial drunken sailor, but never in anger or vitriol. He cursed to celebrate, to accentuate, to make merry.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. That night at the Old Pro -- a bar he’d later buy with his friend Mike Homer in order to help out the owner, who wasn’t making ends meet -- I said hello to Campbell, who promptly introduced me to his drinking buddies. I in turn introduced him to my pal, who was slightly astonished that I knew the great Bill Campbell -- and perhaps also that amid the bonhomie, the beer flowing, and conversation rambling, that Campbell was intent on discussing in-process research and development and defending Intuit’s virtue. He also told me, and not for the last time, that he was impressed that a brand-new columnist for the local newspaper had the moxie to focus on this dull but important accounting maneuver.

I had distinguished myself in Campbell’s estimation, and he would never let me forget it.

William V. Campbell -- in my early days at the Mercury News I insisted on writing his name that way, and this amused him to no end -- died Monday at age 75. It is cliché to say he was one of the greats. But he was one of the greats. A mentor to the likes of Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, John Doerr, and Larry Page, he also was a mentor to countless of other less important and powerful people, including me. In some ways, he was my one-man kitchen cabinet. When I decided to leave the Mercury News to join TheStreet.com, he was my sounding board, advisor, and coach. He continued to play that role for me for years, including for career moves I didn’t make.

Campbell told me so many things over the years that I couldn’t touch journalistically that I never thought of him as much of a source. Here was one of the most powerful and trusted executives in Silicon Valley, a treasure trove of potential information, a director at Apple and advisor at Google -- and I published next to nothing of what he told me. Instead we drank and talked and laughed. He always asked how my wife was doing, taking as keen an interest in her career as mine. He reveled -- absolutely reveled -- in hearing stories about my daughter. A devoted father of two himself, he’d heap praise on me and then sternly remind me how important it was to remember my role as a father.

Campbell also would dish. Convinced I could be trusted, he’d tell devilishly funny stories about the people he knew. Despite his good cheer, not everyone made the grade with Campbell. If someone was pompous or a blowhard or mean-spirited they didn’t rate high in Campbell’s book. But if you merited his attention, there was no one more loyal. He would pick up the phone for you, tell you what he thought of what you were doing -- whether or not you asked -- and he’d talk you up to others.

Like many, I assume, I only saw bits and pieces of Campbell, the parts that were intended for me to see. I never was on the plane back to Pittsburgh with his old pals. I never saw him coach youth football. I never once saw him in New York, where was a trustee of his beloved Columbia University. I’d check in every few months to arrange beers, either at the “new” Old Pro -- the downtown Palo Alto location he and Homer chose to relocate their bar -- or the Dutch Goose in Menlo Park. Debbie Brookfield, his longtime assistant and tenacious protector of him and his calendar, would find the right time and place for us to meet. Years ago we’d drink with Homer, who died in 2009, and Randy Komisar, now a venture capitalist. They all worked together at Go, a doomed company that made a precursor to the iPhone. If you want to understand how Silicon Valley works, the rise and fall of Go and the remarkable cast of characters that worked with Campbell there is well chronicled in the 1995 book Startup, by Jerry Kaplan, the company’s founder.

As I alluded to in a piece I wrote when he stepped down from the Apple board of directors in 2014, Bill Campbell was a complicated man who moved fluidly inside grey zones. He considered Steve Jobs his closest friend and served for 17 years as an Apple director. Yet he stubbornly refused to stop advising Larry Page and many other Google managers, even as the companies became more competitive. He aggressively deflected attention from himself, speaking rarely to the press and then typically at the request of a CEO he was trying to help. I all but begged him to let me do a series of oral-history interviews with him to record his story, central as it was to a critical phase of Silicon Valley’s development. He adamantly rejected my request, and I’m fairly confident he dropped one or two f-bombs along the way. To this day, the best profile about Campbell is Jennifer Reingold’s 2008 feature in Fortune.

I could never put my finger on his unwillingness to be recognized for his accomplishments, because at the same time this was a man who relished his successes. Privately, he wanted to be damn sure you knew his role in some seminal episode -- like solidifying Bezos’s position at a still fledgling Amazon or championing Eric Schmidt’s tenure at a not-yet-dominant Google.

I’m probably going on too long at this point, but this is the way it was with Bill Campbell. There was always time for one more beer, one additional story, one last kernel of advice.

Bill Campbell was a hugger. His hugs weren’t the one-harm “bro hug” pat-downs popular with app-economy entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley today. They were fierce, loving, full-of-life bear hugs that let you know how much he cared. His warm embrace touched the lives of too many to count. A true coach, he lived by example -- reminding his many friends and admirers that life and business are serious affairs but also a helluva lot of fun. This is his legacy.


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