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Apple Is Counting on This Star Exec to Reboot Its Sales in China

She was promised dinner. In early 2008, Apple CEO Steve Jobs asked Isabel Ge Mahe over to his house to talk and share a meal.

Apple Is Counting on This Star Exec to Reboot Its Sales in China

The invitation was part of Apple's ongoing effort to recruit Mahe, who at the time was vice president of wireless software engineering at Palm Inc. The engineer-on-the-rise was hesitant to make a move. "I had built the wireless technology team for Palm pretty much from the ground up, and, at the time, we were trying to revive the Palm brand," she says. Jobs, unsurprisingly, was unwilling to take no for an answer.

So he decided to make his pitch in person. Mahe was impressed with how “down-to-earth” the late Apple cofounder was face to face.

There was just one problem: Jobs never proposed that they eat, and no food ever materialized. “Just water for the whole two hours,” Mahe says, laughing at the memory. “So that was a little bit of a bait and switch!”

What he did offer was a high-profile new gig. Jobs wanted her to build a team to focus on the wireless capability of the iPhone, which Apple had released months earlier. At one point, Jobs pleaded his case with a parable of sorts. He told Mahe about his neighbor, a teenager who, in want of a Ferrari, had souped up his Volkswagen as the next best thing. In the end, though, all the neighbor had was a really loud Volkswagen. “He was trying to tell me that no matter what I do, Palm will always be Palm,” she says. Eventually, she opted for the ­Ferrari. Mahe started at Apple later that year.

Now Mahe, 43, is taking on a critical new role at Apple: In July, CEO Tim Cook named her the first-ever vice president and managing director for Apple in what it calls Greater China — the mainland plus Hong Kong and Taiwan. Apple’s other sales regions don’t have lead execs; the company prides itself on its “functional” structure, with teams grouped by what they do, not location. But it’s time for Apple to think different in China.

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