How I killed Europe’s Largest Computer Company
In 1973 I took a train to Appledorn,the Netherlands. The CEO of Philips asked me to give him my opinion about the viability of his company’s Computer Division. Philips at that time was one of the leading electronic companies in the world and extremely important in Holland where I lived. When I got off the train, I found a limo and driver waiting for me. I was skinny 28 years old and looked more like a hippie than a scientist. I was taken to the Computer Divisions facility. Leaving the limo, I walked into a very large lobby. Besides the receptionist, there was only one man standing there. He turned out to be the head of the division. I walked in the door and he looked passed me. I had long black curly hair and bushy full beard. I am not sure what I was wearing but it certainly was not a suit and tie like this man.
So I said, ‘are you looking for me? I am Avram Miller”. He said “The Avram Miller”. I thought that was pretty funny but did not laugh. It seems that the CEO of Philips had sent a handwritten letter to the Director of the Division telling him to make arrangements for my visit and instructing him to provide me with any information I requested. The note said that I was the CEO’s personal advisor and would be reporting directly back to him about my views regarding the future of division.
I spent the day meeting with different department heads and their staffs. It was a different time for computers. IBM was still king as were mainframes. Sperry, Burroughs, Univac were still successful companies. HP and Digital Equipment were just beginning to ascend as mini computers became more popular. Personal computers as we know them did not exist. I can’t really remember much about what I learned that day but I knew that this part of Philips was not going to be successful. The technology was mediocre and there was a lack of energy in the place. The best way to describe the Division was to say it was “middle aged”.
The next day, I called the CEO of Philips and said in a nice way “you can’t be serious”. I told him that I could not see how the Computer Division could be successful and I recommended that they get out of the business. He thanked me and told me he had come to that conclusion himself but he wanted an outside opinion and I was really “outside” because not only was I not a Philips employee, but I was not Dutch either (even thought I did speak Dutch). The company did not actually close the division but reduced its investment significantly over the next several years.
Oh, I forgot to explain how it was that the CEO of one of the world larges companies came to ask a 28 year old former hippie for advice on one of his major businesses. Readers of this blog will know (but may not remember) that I went to Rotterdam in 1969 to lead the computer activities of a new Medical Institution focused on Cardiovascular Medicine called the Thoraxcenter. In addition to the government money behind this new facility (which cost 50 million dollars back in 1969) there were some contributions from Industry. The largest contributor was Philips. That activity was connected to their research lab (Natlab) under the leadership of Henrick Casimir, a truly great physicist and a wonderful man. He was one of the people that was involved in recruiting me to come to Holland to join the Thoraxcenter (I came in 1969 having just turn 24 years old). One day the top management of Philips came to visit us. I remember that the Director of the Thoraxcenter, Prof. Paul Hugenholtz , and a few others on his staff including me, went to the small Rotterdam Airport to welcome the CEO, Dr. Casimir and some other Philips notables. We had a “site visit” where I gave a presentation about our computer activities. The next day I got a call from the CEO asking me to do him a favor and visit the Computer Division. I guess I made a good impression.
Meeting the current Queen of the Netherlands.
Around the same time, it was decided Princess Beatrix would visit the Thoraxcenter along with her husband Claus. Claus was actually a German. When they married just twenty years after the war there were a lot of negative feelings about him in Holland. Later, he actually became very popular. Anyway, we were to get a royal visit in which we would discuss the work of the Thoraxcenter. I was to present the computer systems that we had developed. A protocol officer of the Court contacted us to instruct us how to behave during the visit. One of the things he did was to specify the kind of clothes we were to wear. I remember that we had a choice between wearing a gray suit or a blue suit with the appropriate tie. The only suit I actually owned was purple. I told the officer that I was trying to decided if I should wear a purple suite for Royalty or a Orange suit since the royal family was from the House of Orange. They almost died! I said,” ok, if I have to wear a blue or gray suit, I am not coming.” Not sure what happened next but they must have made an exception since I ended up meeting Beatrix, now Queen of the Netherlands and her husband, Claus. We were at a rather informal (I use that phrase lightly) reception. In the room, there were only two men that were not wearing blue or gray suits. Prince Claus was wearing brown and I was in my purple suit. I liked him and we kind of hit it off. Sadly, he died in 2002. Beatrix seemed nice but I did not really spend much time with her. By the way, Beatrix’s mother, Queen Juliana signed off on my appointment to the Academic Staff of Erasmus University, Rotterdam.