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 HERE to 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 leave Commodore.
Also, see Jack live on TV:
No-one else 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 home computer 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:
DATA WELT: Who is Jack Tramiel? Who runs this company Atari? Where does the being Tramiel come from?
Jack Tramiel: Do 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 modeled 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.
But the 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 whi
ch 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.
DATA WELT: One very important question bothers us: Why did you leave Commodore? Is there a simple answer to this question?
Jack Tramiel: 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.
DATA WELT: That surely was not an easy step as you founded this company.
Jack Tramiel: 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.
DATA WELT: 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?
Jack Tramiel: 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.
The 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.