If you’re a gamer, there’s a good chance you’ve enjoyed the handiwork of Robbie Bach, possibly the most successful businessman to remain unknown in his Peoria hometown.
Bach, who before retiring as president of Microsoft’s Entertainment and Devices Division spearheaded the launch of Xbox, says with a laugh, “To my knowledge, my connection to Peoria has been a well-kept secret.”
So, perhaps, is the following: Though Bach boasted the corporate title of Chief Xbox Officer, “the funny thing is, I’m not a gamer,” he says with another chuckle. “And I’m not a technical person.”
Interesting, given that some 170 million units of the video game and its offshoots have been sold worldwide, even though Bach confesses that, initially, he feared it might crash and burn, if it got off the ground at all.
Today, 60 and retired from Microsoft, he works as an author and speaker, a self-described “civic engineer.” As he explains, “How do we make communities better?”
That’s one goal. Another is returning to Peoria for the first time in 60 years.
In the 1950s, Robert and Margaret Bach were raising a family in Milwaukee, where he worked as a biochemist for Pabst Brewing Co. In 1959, he was transferred to the Pabst plant in Peoria Heights, so the clan – including children ages 12, 11, 8 and 7 — moved to Peoria. They lived in a ranch house on Oakglen Drive, near University Street and Northmoor Road.
In 1961, Margaret Bach discovered she was again pregnant. He “was the proverbial Catholic mistake,” Bach now jokes.
His siblings attended Kellar School. Their most vivid collective memory involves a family car their mom bought in Peoria for $50. The rear windows were taped in place. A Flintstones-like hole distinguished the floorboard. Most importantly, it ran.
Soon after the pregnancy news, his parents received another shock.
“With four kids, and one on the way, dad lost his job,” Bach says.
Robbie was born on the last day of 1961. Six months later, his dad was offered a job at the Schlitz Brewing Co. in Chicago. The family packed up again. From there, job transfers would take them to California, Milwaukee and North Carolina, where Bach graduated high school.
He went on to study economics at the University of North Carolina, where he made Academic All-America as a Tar Heels tennis player.
After a couple years with Morgan Stanley, he earned his MBA from Stanford University. That led to a job at Microsoft, where he first garnered distinction as the top marketing executive for Microsoft Office. He later served in multiple leadership roles, including a stint as business operations manager for Microsoft Europe.
Bach then moved from his business software comfort zone to an unfamiliar landscape. He would lead Microsoft’s entry into the gaming field, in response to a perceived cyber-challenge from Sony.
In 1994, the Japanese giant debuted PlayStation. In late 1999, Sony announced the launch of the system’s second version – PS2 – with the ability to play CDs and DVDs, a scenario that raised eyebrows at Microsoft.
“Microsoft was calling PS2 ‘a PC in the living room,’” Bach recalls. “A PC to Microsoft was a big deal. That’s our territory. We thought, ‘We’ve got to do something.’”
Bach was tasked with shepherding the creation of the first American-made console since Atari Jaguar. A team was assembled with an imposing deadline.
“It was a deal where you had 20 people and 18 months to go build the world’s newest game system,” said Bach, who had his doubts.
“At one point, I thought, ‘This will never ship,’” he said. He even submitted a resignation letter, which was rejected. Progress ensued, but what to call the new game? They came up with a placeholder – Xbox – which eventually stuck.
At its debut in late 2001, reception was cool. Excitement began growing with the first installment of the “Halo” military science fiction franchise. “It’s an icon now,” Bach said.
Xbox got a big boost in 2004 at E3, the annual industry expo, where the company revealed not only a new version of “Halo” but a collaboration with another gaming company — Electronic Arts — to put its sports titles on Xbox Live, punctuated by the on-stage presence of Muhammed Ali.
“The place went completely crazy,” Bach recalls.
As Xbox grew in market share, Bach got a new title. News media yawned at the prospect of interviewing the company’s Senior Vice President of the Home and Entertainment Division, but clamored for a chance to chat with the Chief Xbox Officer.
If he loved the title, he also loved the success of Xbox, which in 2005 launched Xbox 360. Microsoft now grabs 25 percent of sales in the $60 billion gaming industry, behind just Sony and Nintendo, according to the data and analytics firm Ampere Analysis.
Bach left Microsoft in 2010. “I wanted to do something more community engaged,” he says.
Bach has served on the boards of multiple nonprofits, including Boys & Girls Clubs of America. But he wanted to share his business knowledge and experiences more directly. He wrote Xbox Revisited, getting into the importance of strategy, which “has to be deadly simple.”
He also has delved into fiction with The Wilkes Insurrection, a technothriller with social commentary. “I wanted to talk about how much the country is changing,” he says.
Since 1988, Bach has lived in Seattle, where he and Pauline, his wife of 37 years, raised three children, now ages 26 to 31. He does about 50 speaking engagements a year. His travel bucket list includes just two more states – Iowa and Mississippi – plus a return to the city of his birth.
Phil Luciano is a senior writer/ columnist for Peoria Magazine
and content contributor to public television station WTVP.