It seems like it’s been a long time since we’ve heard anything but a steady drumbeat of bad news about Dell Computer. Dell misses the shift to laptops. Dell misses smart phones and tablets. Dell drops from first to third in global PC sales. Dell loses a third of its market share in six years. Dell watches its stock drop, drop, and drop again, until it is less than a quarter of what it was in the year 2000. Dell has its lunch eaten by Asian competitors manufacturing lower-cost computers. Dell’s worldwide shipments drop 20 percent from 2011. I could go on.
The good news, if you can call it that, is that the Michael Dell-led $24.4 billion buyout of his own company this week does not, for the moment, constitute automatic bad news. Not yet, anyway. There is hope. Most of the financial analysts, while not exactly singing hosannas, seem to acknowledge that. Michael, as he is known to his employees, is entering what amounts to a witness protection program from the cruel, ill-tempered, and short-sighted stock market, and everyone thinks this is a jolly good idea.
But 25 years after Dell’s first offering, as stockholders take their miserable $13.65 a share and the company’s public stock vanishes from the exchanges, it is worth remembering that the legacy of Dell’s once-rocketing stock price is not only that it made Michael Dell one of the richest men in the country, it also changed the city of Austin, profoundly and forever. You could say, in fact, that, as 65,000 people a year now pour into the fastest growing large metropolitan area in the country, it was Dell’s stock price, as much as anything else, that gave the city the critical cultural and economic mass to make that happen.
To understand how this could be, dial back to the year 1984, when a young Michael Dell was assembling computers in his dorm room at UT. Austin was for the most part still the sleepy, government and university town it had long been: laid back, low-rent, bohemian, anti-materialistic, and slacker-filled. There was virtually no old money in the city, and traditionally there had been very little business. As any UT graduate of the era can tell you, the real jobs were all in Houston. There was a nascent high-tech industry in Austin, to be sure. But nothing remotely like what erupted in the next decade.
Enter Dell Computer. By the nineties it had become the fastest growing company in history, far outpacing previous record holders like Microsoft and Walmart. The company grew like a virus, doubling every five years, and then, just as everyone said that it could not possibly sustain such growth, from 1997 to 1999 its revenues exploded from $7.8 billion to $18.2 billion.
As revenues soared, so did its stock price. From the day of its initial public offering in 1988 to its peak in March 2000, Dell’s stock rose a staggering—no, staggering is not quite the word—apocalyptic 87,000 percent. Thousands of Dell employees got rich. At one point Dell’s stock was said to have created 2,700 millionaires, so many that they got a name: Dellionaires. Many of them had a lot more than a million dollars. In 2006 a former manager at Dell told me that he made $10 million on one stock option bonus alone—the sort of option package that Dell employees routinely received. Secretaries became rich; executives became, as my grandfather used to say, richer than goose grease. Dell Computer was not only filling the farm fields of Williamson county, north Travis County, and the rolling hills west of Austin with homes and people—the number of local employees at the company would hit 22,000 and the company’s local suppliers brought in tens of thousands more—but it was pumping wealth into the city on a level unseen in its history.
This had several interesting effects. Austin, formerly a business backwater, now began to draw top talent from Harvard and Stanford business schools and from the Silicon Valley. They would go to Dell, where they worked eighteen-hour days in a culture that was brutally demanding, unforgiving, and bottom-line oriented. They would become quickly rich before spinning out on their own, typically as either the financiers or principals in high-tech start-ups. Dell thus became, indirectly, the reason Austin was the leading spawning ground for new companies. (There were others, like Trilogy and Tivoli, but not on the scale of Dell.)
“It was the surge of Dell that caused Austin to emerge as a high-tech powerhouse,” former Dell executive Scott Eckert told me in a 2006 interview. “IBM, Motorola, and 3M had been here, but it was Dell that created the visibility in the 1990s.” (Like so many other Dell managers, Eckert left Dell to start his own business.)
Today the city has more than 1,000 technology companies, a direct legacy of Dell and its rising stock. Dell was to Austin what Hewlett Packard was to the Silicon Valley and Microsoft was to Seattle.
But Dell did more than help populate the hills along Loop 360 with sleek, low-hung, travertine office buildings housing these new tech companies. The people who worked for them had a work ethic and material tastes that were light years removed from the happy slackers of the old days. They drove BMWs, liked expensive meals, and bought large houses with backyard pizza ovens and negative edge pools.
They were also unapologetically nouveaux riches in a city that had virtually no old-line, established philanthropic class. They thus stepped into a cultural vacuum which they proceeded, with amazing speed, to fill. It was Dell money—and massive amounts of it, in the hands of people like former CFO Tom Meredith, former CEO Kevin Rollins, former Vice Chair Mort Topfer, and former Dell marketing exec Ben Bentzin—that was behind the wave of new cultural institutions in Austin. These included: The Long Center, Ballet Austin, Austin Lyric Opera, the Blanton Art Museum, Arts Center Stage, Austin Children’s Museum, and the Wildflower Center. The most recent evidence of this is the stunning new, blue-clad “Topfer Theater at Zach” just south of the river. Mort Topfer, moreover, has given more the $100 million to organizations in central Texas. Then there was Michael Dell himself, who accounted for the Dell Children’s Medical Center, the Dell Jewish Community Center, and the new UT Medical school (a recent $50 million donation). He has also given to the Blanton, the Long Center, the Children’s Museum, and a long list of other local causes.
So the next time you hear bad news about Dell, remember the good old days when there was nothing but high tide, green grass, and the endless upward spiral of profits. And consider that, while, Dell’s stock may be going away, the city that it helped shape is not.