Early History of Jack
Reproduced November 6, 2004 from the
German Magazine "Data Welt" issued March 1986
Translated into English by www.commodore.ca
and (mostly by) Germany's Boris Kretzinger.
Sourced from and graciously OCR'd by Germany's Boris Jakubaschk. Click
read the original German version of this interview.
Oddly, Mr. Tramiel makes only a casual
reference to his time in
Auschwitz during which
his parents were killed.
The biggest question answered by this interview is what caused him to
Jack 'Live' on Video:
Jack Tramiel is King of Low
Jack Tramiel Computers For the
had such a great influence on computer business like Jack Tramiel. In 1977 he
introduced the first Personal Computer, the COMMODORE PET 2001 Personal
Electronic Translator. In
1980 his “Volkscomputer” VC 20 made computer affordable for everyone. And just
1982 followed the Commodore 64, the by
far best sold
of all time. Tramiel stayed true to his slogan: he wanted to produce “for the
masses, not for the classes” and give the customer newest technology for low
cost. This applies to ATARI, his new company, too, as the ST does proof. So who
is Jack Tramiel? What is his philosophy? What can we expect from him in the
future? DATA-WELT editor-in-chief Dr. Achim Becker, who is a long-time Tramiel
fan, could now persuade this man to give a detailed interview. It took place in
his weekend house at lake Tahoe in Nevada on January 14th (1986),
just a couple of days after the CES Las Vegas. Tramiel answered all questioned
in an unusual frank way and gave us a deep insight into his life and philosophy
as one of the most fascinating and most successful man of our time:
is Jack Tramiel? Who runs this company Atari? Where does the being Tramiel come
you want to hear everything since the beginning? I was born in September 1928 in
Lodz, Poland. I had to stay in Germany during the time of war. In 1947 I
emigrated to the US and joined the Army, mainly to learn the English language
and to get a vocational training. At the same time I attended an IBM school for
office technology. It was also there where I learnt to repair electrical
typewriters. When I left the army after three years and seven months I used this
knowledge for a job as mechanic. In those days I already had a family – my son
was just a year old – but the money I earned was not enough at all. So I had to
drive cabs at the same time.
After a couple
of years my wife and I decided that if she did go to work, I could start my own
business. Together with an old friend whom I knew from the army I started a
small company which was all about selling and repairing electrical typewriters.
So we bought 200 IBM typewriters from the United Nations, repaired them and at
least had a stock to sell. With the profit we gained we bought a small company
from the New York Bronx, named Singer typewriters. And it was just because we
both had been in the army so the bank gave us 25.000 Dollar each for good
conditions – that was our starting capital.
It was soon
clear to us that there was no money to be made by just repairing the machines –
the trade with imported typewriters from Olympia, Adler or Everest seemed to be
much more profitable. Our customers did not complain about the inexpensive
foreign typewriters from the small shop in the Bronx.
I was already
interested in geography when I was just a little boy. I collected stamps and
pictures from cigarette boxes with flags on them. But I did not have a favourite
country or city, the whole wide world was interesting to me. So it was no large
step to move to Toronto with my activities later on. I thought that in a country
smaller than the US my chances would be bigger. Furthermore there were too many
clever guys in the Bronx which was not comfortable for me. I asked my partner
either to join me in Canada or to buy the shop in the Bronx. That was in 1955
and one year later he also came to Canada. And here we did exactly the same
thing again: we fixed used typewriters for stores which sold them. Incidentally
we bought a agency of an Italian typewriter manufacturer named Everest and by
that I got to know the English agent for this company, Erik Markus, who was born
in Berlin. He was the son-in-law of Willi Feiler, who produced adding machines
in Berlin, but had to leave 1936 because he was Jewish. We got on with each
other immediately and I modelled myself on him. He taught me how to be a real
businessman; he helped me in every kind of way. He helped me to get in contact
with companies in Czechoslovakia. I wanted to produce typewriters under license
in Canada to get public orders – in those days Canada had great national pride
and they wanted only Canadian products for state institutions. Well, I was young
and naive and so I just asked some American manufacturer, but they only laughed
at me. My friend from England was of the opinion that it would be no problem to
get a license for Consul typewriters. They would also support me technically by
showing me how to build those writers.
I got the
license and built the typewriters in Canada for the Canadian branch of the
stores named Sears & Robuck. We bought the parts in Czech and assembled them in
Canada, so our typewriters were true Canadian products. But we still had no name
for our company. One day while Erik and I were around in Berlin driving in a
taxi, we discussed some probably names – and suddenly I saw a car with
Commodore on it, and because our favourite names general and admiral were
already in use, we named our typewriters commodore. And so in 1958 this well
known company name was created. But I still did not have much money so I could
only trust my own personal abilities. So I went to my customers and said: If you
want me to build typewriters for you, you will have to pay me first. The first
load I got was from Sears & Robuck, $170.000.
business went very well, so I needed more money. Therefore Sears provided me
contact to one of their finance brokers. With him I came in contact with a
finance company which borrowed me money for enormous interest. And so I got into
business. In 1960/61 my friend Erik began selling the adding machines which his
father-in-law produced in Berlin. He had produced parts for mechanical
accounting machines there so far. But because the electronics had been coming
everywhere, Mr Feiler came to the conclusion that he better should produce
something different. So he thought adding machines would be just fine. Well, to
come to terms: I overtook the agency for Canada and the US. In 1962 I bought the
whole company and suddenly a German company with 2000 workers, most of them in
Berlin, was mine. The whole time I literally worked 24 hours a day. However, my
family was not so happy with this situation because I was barely at home. One
day my oldest son who was just 13 back then: Dad, when I’m grown up I don’t want
to be like you, I want to have time for my family. I tried to give him a reply:
Well, you know, normal people have a family similar to a tree with his strong
branches, but my tree has been just cut
down. As a result I have to build a new one and you are one branch of it.
Please, you have to understand it: I have to rebuild everything – and that’s why
I have just so little time. To make it very clear to him I took him with me to
work, to my journeys and to my business negotiations during his summer holidays.
Of course I was often in Berlin then and he was with me. I knew that I had to
keep in touch with my children but I could only do this without neglecting the
business. This time helped us understanding each other within the family.
That surely was
a turning-point in my life. From there on my family was very important to me. I
do believe in life; you have to help each other, you have to trust in each other
and you have to develop a continuation in everything that you do, because the
whole life is continuous. My dream was that my sons continue within the same
branch like me and that they try to be the best like I tried, but without
forcing them to stay in the same business. Despite of that I tried to show them
what I do, to integrate them and to discuss the successes and failures. I
believe this method worked out: all three sons are now in the company. And by
the way: all three specialized in three different aspects without any planning.
Sam had has a scientific economic training from the New-York university of
Canada and is now president of the company; Leonard studied physics at the
Columbia university and does now support the software development and Gary, my
youngest son, attended the Manlow Park College where you get trained for leading
positions systematically and now he does the finances. They all work on
different sections but still close together.
One very important question bothers us:
Why did you leave Commodore? Is there a simple answer to this question?
If you asked the people I worked with, they will tell you that I practically did
not change in 25 years. I was always one of them. Just because we were a
million-dollar company, we had not have to spend money like a billion-dollar
one. Because if you spend more money, you have to adjust prices. The man I
worked for was of another opinion. As soon as the business was going well, he
wanted to spend more money. That was one of the points where we had different
opinions. And so was the question of financing. I was of the opinion that we
should had gave away more shares as soon as they were well-traded, moreover
because we did never had a raise of stock since we went to stock market 1962.
With the 120 million dollar we would have earned by giving away 2 million new
shares we could have paid back all debts we had at the banks and by that
strengthen the companies position. The man I worked for was of the opinion that
this would weaken his share of the company and cut his influence – which was
totally wrong. Those two were the main aspects. To come to terms: our
philosophies have been too different. We came to that point when I said, that I
will have to quit if I cannot do what I think would be best for the company. He
said very kindly that if I will not do what he wants to do, then I could leave.
And so I left.
That surely was not an easy step as you founded this company.
Of course this was very, very hard for me. But because I could not lead the
company the way I thought it would be best, it was not my company any longer.
Your hardest opponents have ever since been the Japanese. If now Japanese
investors came here to buy out Commodore and step into computer business with
that name, would you over think your position and probably buy Commodore back?
No, not because of the Japanese. Because the Japanese can only be successful if
there are no more people like me. Japanese only think in long terms, they need
to have plans for three years or so. They are not innovative, so they can only
have success if innovative people disappear in this branch.
remainder of the interview discusses Atari and we have not yet been able to
source those pages. If you have them
we would love to have a copy.