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Analysis: Where does Jobs stand among America's iconic CEOs?

Steve Jobs takes the stage to discuss the iCloud service at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco
Steve Jobs takes the stage to discuss the iCloud service at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco

By Peter Lauria

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The question is not whether Steve Jobs is an iconic CEO, but where Apple Inc's co-founder ranks in the pantheon of business leaders who have carved out a place in history.

Jobs would surely pass the Times Square test, meaning many people walking around the New York City tourist mecca would know who he is, while they might not recognize the names of other business legends such as General Electric's former Chief Executive Jack Welch.

And Jobs' technological innovations, among them the Mac computer, iPod, iPhone, and iPad, have brought him the same one-name recognition as Carnegie, Ford, Gates, Murdoch, and others.

But 50 years from now, will the Nano be considered as revolutionary as the Model T?

"What Ford did for the automobile -- just look at the suburbs and highways that developed from him, the assembly lines. Ford had a tremendous effect," said Mike Carrier, a professor at Rutgers School of Law in New Jersey, who has written extensively on innovation and intellectual property.

"I would put Jobs up in that category in terms of how he revolutionized our concept of music, of phones, of the computer, of literally everything."

But others say the jury is still out on the lasting influence of Jobs' creations, given the breakneck pace of technological innovations and the fickleness of consumers. Motorola's Razr, for example, was thought to be revolutionary just a few years ago.

"I'm not sure how all these innovations will stack up in the long-term," said Peter Cappelli, a management professor at the Wharton School of Business.

BETWEEN EDISON AND DISNEY

When Jobs first started out more than three decades ago, there were some who thought he would not make it.

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, associate dean of the Yale School of Management, remembers vividly how Jobs awkwardly introduced himself to Polaroid CEO Ed Land during a lunch at Michela's in Cambridge, Massachusetts

in 1985.

"He came over to Ed to thank him for his wisdom in marrying progressive management with technological advancement," Sonnenfeld said. "After he left, Ed shook his head and said, 'That guy is never going to make it. He doesn't get technology. He's just a salesman.'"

Jobs is a salesman, one of the most successful of the last half century. But the magnitude of his technological brilliance -- The New York Times pointed out that his name appears as inventor on 313 patents -- and his penchant for theatrics place him on a historical spectrum somewhere between Thomas Edison and Walt Disney.

"There are few CEOs who can compare to Jobs in terms of breadth of activities, length of time in command, and connection with consumers," said Harvard Business School professor Anita Elberse.

Part of Jobs' mystique is owed to a confluence of factors either unique to him or to our times. The attention paid to CEOs by financial analysts and the media far exceeds what it was during Henry Ford's day, for instance.

And Jobs' career trajectory as a pioneer, failure, and comeback success has the narrative arc that journalists love. Walt Disney or William Randolph Hearst hit on one or two of those plot points, but not all three.

"You can't underestimate the massive impact the press has had in building up the concept of the celebrity CEO," said Eric Abrahamson, professor of management at Columbia Business School.

He pointed to the reinvention of Kimberly Clarke as a case in point. That company began as a lumber manufacturer, then moved on to pulp before hitting it big with gas masks during World War I. After the war, Kimberly Clarke's fortunes began a downward spiral and did not recover until the company introduced Kleenex.

Though that turnaround is akin to the one Jobs' pulled off after returning to Apple in 1996 -- its stock is up roughly 9,000 percent over that time -- Abrahamson said, "I couldn't tell you who the CEO was who led Kimberly Clarke's turnaround."

PIXIE DUST

Jobs diverges from his peer group in two key aspects: the number of industries his company's products have fundamentally changed and consumers' identification of him as the singular force behind those products.

Ford helped create the automobile industry. Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. Jobs designed aesthetically pleasing, easy-to-use devices that changed the way computing, music and movies were made and enjoyed.

By accident or design, consumers have made a visceral connection between Apple products and the guy in the blue jeans, black turtleneck, and wire-rimmed glasses. They know Jobs did not create the devices on his own, but they desperately want to believe that he did.

They have sprinkled some of Disney's pixie dust on him, in a manner of speaking.

"Consumers personally believe that Jobs is solely responsible for the products in their house," Elberse said. But they do not think that Murdoch alone puts out News Corp newspapers, for instance.

"Fifty or a hundred years from now they'll look back on Apple products and think, 'Steve Jobs made this,'" she said. "That's his cultural impact."

And his legacy.

(Reporting by Peter Lauria and Bill Rigby; editing by Tiffany Wu)

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