The day Apple became normal

March 19, 2012: 10:28 AM ET

Finally, Apple shares some of its wealth.

Tim Cook

Tim Cook

FORTUNE -- Mark it down: March 19, 2012, is the day Apple took the extraordinarily normal step of issuing a dividend and initiating a stock buyback program. It is the day Apple overtly began behaving like other companies.

For weeks, I've been wondering if Apple would do something nifty with what it likes to call its "cash-balance" situation. As I noted, Apple rarely does anything the way other companies do. Not manufacturing. Not marketing. Not PR. And for years it hasn't managed its balance sheet the same way either. It unnecessarily kept piles of cash sitting around largely because that's the way Steve Jobs wanted it. Haunted by Apple's brush with insolvency in 1997, he was terrified of running out of money. He hated buybacks on principle as well, viewing them as bribes to shareholders rather than good uses of capital.

And yet, no matter how many times I asked smart money types and careful Apple (AAPL) watchers what they thought Apple would do, nobody seemed to have any creative ideas. Even a mega-acquisition--paying $10 billion, say, for Twitter, which Apple will never, ever do--wouldn't really make a big enough dent in Apple's cash. Wickedly aggressive investments in new equipment or tangential capabilities is part of the Apple playbook. But spending many billions of dollars on those sorts of strategies is beyond difficult. Besides, Apple's massive cash flows--$16 billion in the first quarter alone--typically can fund its wildest ambitions.

MORE: Apple's dividend and buyback: What the analysts are saying

So instead, Apple announced the most usual of financial behaviors Monday morning, before the sun had come up in California. It will pay a $2.65 quarterly dividend and buy back stock worth up to $10 billion over four years or so. All told, it will return to shareholders more than $40 billion of the money it is holding in the United States. (Share buybacks may not be the best uses of capital, Apple CEO Tim Cook seems to be saying, but they are better than investing in Treasury bills.)

Cook and Apple's chief financial officer, Peter Oppenheimer, stuck marvelously and typically to their script in a 23-minute phone call with investors and journalists. They outlined their decision and then refused all efforts to analyze it beyond the information they shared. Nothing out of the ordinary there. Yet Oppenheimer did let slip one important tidbit about Apple's thought process. He said Apple analyzed and thought about what to do with the cash. Lastly, Apple "listened" to what shareholders wanted, Oppenheimer said. (A UBS wealth-management note about Apple soliciting the opinions of big investors--all of whom wanted this dividend--is what led me to conclude in early February that this dividend was imminent.)

Apple under Steve Jobs was so good at so many things. Listening wasn't one of them, and Jobs wore that trait as a badge of  honor. He knew what was best--even if he didn't--and that's the way it was. A normal company listens, of course. March 19, 2012, marks the day we saw a  tiny example of an Apple that is normal.

Chapter 8 of Adam Lashinsky's book, Inside Apple: How America's Most Admired-and Secretive--Company Really Works (Grand Central/Business Plus, 2012), is entitled "Plan for after your successor." It discusses a handful of ways Apple will become a more normal, if no less impressive, company without Steve Jobs at the helm.

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Adam Lashinsky
Adam Lashinsky
Senior Editor at Large, Fortune

Adam Lashinsky is a San Francisco-based editor-at-large for FORTUNE, covering Wall Street and Silicon Valley. Lashinsky joined FORTUNE in 2001, after two years as a contributing columnist. Prior to joining FORTUNE, Lashinsky covered Silicon Valley for TheStreet.com and The San Jose Mercury News. A Chicago native, Lashinsky holds a B.A. in history and political science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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