“Bob, there’s something really important I’ve got to tell you.”
On January 24, 2006, half an hour before he and Robert Iger were supposed to announce the sale of Pixar to Disney for $7.4 billion, Steve Jobs sat the Disney CEO down on an outdoor bench on the Pixar campus and told him the news: “My cancer is back.”
Until he told Iger, only Jobs’s wife and doctors knew that that pancreatic cancer was still a problem for Apple’s leader. And by telling Iger just minutes before the announcement, he put the Disney CEO in a very difficult position, to say the least.
In the forthcoming biography Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution Of A Reckless Upstart Into A Visionary Leader by longtime Fortune writer Brent Schlender and Fast Company executive editor Rick Tetzeli, Iger reveals the conversation:
He said, “I’ve made myself a promise that I’m going to be alive for Reed’s graduation from high school.” [Reed is Jobs’s eldest son.]
So I say, of course, “How old is Reed?”
He tells me that Reed is fourteen, and will be graduating in four years. He says, “Frankly, they tell me I’ve got a fifty-fifty chance of living five years.”
“Are you telling me this for any other reason than wanting to get it off your chest?” I asked.
He says, “I’m telling you because I’m giving you a chance to back out of the deal.”
So I look at my watch, and we’ve got thirty minutes. In thirty minutes we’re going to make this announcement. We’ve got television crews, we’ve got the board votes, we’ve got investment bankers. The wheels are turning. And I’m thinking, We’re in this post Sarbanes-Oxley world, and Enron, and fiduciary responsibility, and he is going to be our largest shareholder, and I’m now being asked to bury a secret. He told me, “My kids don’t know. Not even the Apple board knows. Nobody knows, and you can’t tell anybody.”
Iger, of course, decided to go forward with the acquisition, despite the risks–and though he promised Jobs he’d keep the secret, he did tell one person before the deal went through: Disney vice president and general counsel Alan Braverman.
Over the next few years, Jobs confided in Iger regularly about his illness: “I always knew exactly what was going on with Steve medically,” Iger said. The two became close–so close that they actually talked about possibly buying Yahoo together, so close that Iger turned down an opportunity to join Google’s board because he knew that by doing so, he would make Jobs jealous.
It was a remarkable turn of events given how much Jobs had grown to dislike Iger’s predecessor, Michael Eisner. But sometimes Jobs just trusted his gut when it came to developing relationships with people, and Iger was someone he trusted. In fact, when he and his wife Laurene had discussed the question of whether or not to tell Iger about the cancer, Steve had told her that they could trust him.
They both felt that it was the right thing to do, given the magnitude of the sale. Their discussion had revolved around a single question: Could Steve really trust Iger to keep the secret? Steve told her they could. “I love that guy,” he told Laurene.
Becoming Steve Jobs comes out on March 24th.
Interview with Rick Tetzeli, author of Becoming Steve Jobs: