In any history, certain dates are going to stand out.
And in the case of Apple’s 40 years in Cork and in Ireland, some of those dates are pivotal.
In fact, it’s arguable that – had things gone another way – Apple might have pulled out of Ireland before the seeds of today’s success had a chance to germinate here.
Apple’s recent history in Ireland mirrors its huge success internationally.
Three months ago, in August, Apple’s market value topped $2 trillion. That milestone came just two years after Apple became the first publicly-listed US company to have a $1 trillion stock market valuation.
Apple looked like it was able to make and break financial records for fun.
It hasn’t always been that way, though.
Even here in Ireland – where Apple officially opened its first manufacturing plant outside the US on 24 November, 1980 – results in its early years were mixed, while its more recent history here, although hugely successful, has been somewhat contentious and controversial.
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The significance of Apple’s Cork plant to the company is marked by the fact that, on the day it opened, Apple’s founder Steve Jobs and a number of the company’s senior executives travelled to Ireland to be present as the then Minister for the Public Service, Gene Fitzgerald, unveiled a commemorative plaque at the Hollyhill site.
The plant opened with just 60 employees to manufacture printed circuit boards. Apple wanted to establish a foothold in Europe, and the Irish government and the IDA beat competition from Britain and elsewhere to secure the plant for Cork.
A decade of growth followed, and employment at the plant increased to almost 1,000 people. Not only that: by the end of the 1980s, Apple announced details of a project to double the size of the campus and the workforce.
Employment peaked in 1996, but this was followed by a period of decline.
Apple, corporately, was struggling financially until the return as CEO of founder Steve Jobs, who had been ousted a decade earlier following a boardroom struggle.
At that stage, Tim Cook was an Apple Vice President. He travelled to Ireland – his first time here – for a critical meeting in Cork in the summer of 1998.
On 8 June, 1998, Apple dismissed as “speculative” reports that 500 jobs were to be axed in Cork.
On 1 February, 1999, management at the plant told union representatives that 450 jobs were to go at the facility – 390 temporary workers and 60 supervisors.
Apple’s news rocked Cork to the core, and there were strong rumours that the entire plant might even close.
By then, Cathy Kearney had spent a decade working with Apple in Cork and was at that time a senior member of the finance team there.
“I was in that meeting,” she told RTÉ News of Tim Cook’s first visit to the plant in the summer of 1998. “It was very tough times; it was tough times for Apple and I think it was tough times for this facility and this site.”
Cathy Kearney denied that the closure of Apple was on the table then.
“We never had a discussion about closing – 100%, never,” she said. “There was a discussion at the time about printed circuit boards and was it viable – considering what was going on in China at the time – to actually continue with that.”
Undoubtedly, however, this was a pivotal period in the history of Apple in Cork and in Ireland.
“Tim has referred recently to how impressed he was with the people he met at that time,” Cathy Kearney recalled.
She described the time the decision was taken to close the printed circuit board manufacturing line as “a huge negative”, but at the same time claimed it made a massive difference to the trajectory of Apple’s history in Cork.
“We had to make the really, really tough decision to close the printed circuit board facility. It was really, really tough. The good thing though is, I think, with Tim, very quickly we had a full re-set of our strategy.”
“We totally changed our focus as a company and tried to get ourselves closer to the customer, closer to understanding our customers and our customers’ needs,” Cathy Kearney said.
A year after the job losses, Apple established a customer support base in Cork. It was called Applecare.
The years which followed have seen huge growth, with Applecare and Apple in Cork expanding on an almost continuous basis to support products such as the iPod, launched in 2001; the iPhone, launched in 2007; and the iPad, launched in 2010.
Apple’s campus at Hollyhill in Cork became its largest in Europe. Expansion continued. Apple took two floors of a newly redeveloped office block in Cork city centre at Lavitt’s Quay.
In the middle of all this growth, controversy has been a visitor to Apple in Ireland too.
Notwithstanding the company’s tax case victory last August at the General Court of the European Union, many people continue to believe Apple could and should be paying more tax.
The European Commission and Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager clearly believe that. It was Commissioner Vestager who made the original ruling that Apple owed Ireland more than €13 billion in unpaid taxes. And it was Commissioner Vestager who announced in September that there will be an appeal against the court’s decision annulling her original ruling.
Forty years on, though, Apple is still in Ireland. Its success in Cork mirrors its growth globally.
Apple currently employs more than 6,000 people in Cork – a 100-fold increase on the number of people the company employed when the plant first opened 40 years ago. Its footprint has also increased from 40,000 square feet to almost a million square feet today.
Cathy Kearney has been with Apple for most of those 40 years. Apple’s Vice President of European Operations has risen from being hired as a Fixed Asset Accountant in the finance department in Cork in 1989. She is with Apple long enough to appreciate that there are good days and there are bad days.
She described the strategy re-set which followed the 1999 redundancies as the first step in a process which led to the creation of what Apple in Cork is today.
“I remember Tim [Cook] saying: ‘You are going to learn so much from this – what a great learning opportunity’. At the time, I don’t think I certainly thought so; but in hindsight, I do. I think it keeps us grounded.”