When he graduated from McMaster, in 1986, the tech world was on fire. Mobile phones smaller than shoe boxes were still fantasy gadgets but Microsoft and Apple were coming on strong, companies were appointing information officers and secretaries were swapping IBM typewriters for PCs. Mr. Elop plunged into this world and joined a small software development and consulting firm in Toronto called Soma. “It has nothing to do with the drug,” he says. “My mother said, ‘Do you really have to move that far away to find a job?’” Soma was a remarkable success. Proof? The lads sold it to Lotus Development, the maker of Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet software, in the early 1990s. He then consulted for Lotus and a high-flying fast-food chain called Boston Chicken, which he later joined as chief information officer.
The “Chicken,” as it was known, gave Mr. Elop his first senior executive role at a publicly traded company. He hasn’t forgotten his junk-food lingo. “When you went into a Boston Chicken and ordered quarter-chicken, white, with mash and corn, when that was rung up, that would signal all the way along the supply chain the need for more potatoes to be put on a truck a thousand miles away,” he says.
The Canadian poultry boy lasted until 1998, the year Boston Chicken filed for bankruptcy amid allegations of sleazy executive behaviour. “A lot of us left not long [before the bankruptcy]” he says. “We were not happy with what was going on.”
Mr. Elop quickly landed another top job, this time at Macromedia, the San Francisco company that gave the world Flash, the multimedia technology used to add animation and graphics to Web pages. Macromedia was a wild ride for Mr. Elop. He joined near the peak of the Internet bubble and watched it deflate. “The lesson I learned is that the laws of gravity apply,” he says. “When gravity apparently is suspended, it will come back.”
By the time Adobe Systems bought Macromedia, in 2005, Mr. Elop was Macromedia’s CEO – his first top job. He joined Adobe, lasted a year, then landed at Juniper Networks, the California maker of networking equipment, as chief operating officer.
And then the big man from the big company – Microsoft – banged on his door and turned his life, his family’s life and ultimately Nokia’s, upside down.
Nancy and Stephen Elop have five children between ages 13 and 20 – an adopted Chinese girl, a son and triplets, all girls. Nancy is from Wyoming, Ont., just east of Sarnia. They met at McMaster and married when they were young. Nancy and the kids live in Redmond, Wash., Microsoft’s home.
Since Mr. Elop spends only one-third of each month in Helsinki, moving the whole family there made no sense. Typically the city is a once-a-week layover on his ceaseless world tours. “I have this pattern of going right around the globe,” he says.
Mr. Elop was first approached by a Microsoft talent scout just before Thanksgiving, in 2007. The scout told him “Steve Ballmer wants to see you.”
They talked technology, including mobile technology. Mr. Elop could tell that Mr. Ballmer was interested in him, and Mr. Elop was definitely interested in Microsoft, but there was no job offer. A couple of months later, there were more meetings with Mr. Ballmer, several other senior Microsoft executives and Microsoft chairman Bill Gates himself.
Mr. Elop begged not to be left in professional limbo and before he knew it, Mr. Ballmer’s plane had landed at Kitchener-Waterloo Airport. Mr. Elop picked him up and drove him to their suburban house in tiny Acton, Ont., near Guelph. “ I took him into the rec room in our basement and we spent the better part of the afternoon and evening talking. For my wife it was a good thing because she got to ask what schools are like in Redmond. Mr. Ballmer cares about family life,” he says. A few days later, he was appointed head of Microsoft’s business division, where he was responsible for the Microsoft Office products.