SAN FRANCISCO — Dave Whitby bought his first shares of Apple stock in 2005 for $52 each.
The 64-year-old database consultant has been buying shares ever since. Last year, he sold enough for a big down payment on a new home in Altadena, Calif.
Whitby is one of a f ervent band of Apple faithful who for years have been accumulating small stakes in the company. They bought shares as they bought Apple's popular devices that, like its stock, keep shattering sales records.
Now Apple is the world's most valuable company and ranks as one of the most profitable investments of the past decade. On Friday, Apple shares fell $10.31, or 1.69 percent, to $602.50, about the retail price of a mid-range iPad.
The faith that longtime shareholders have placed in Apple was rewarded last week when the company, which has more than $100 billion in cash, said it would finally begin sharing some of it with investors. In July, Apple will pay its first dividend since 1995.
Small shareholders are cheering the regular quarterly dividend of $2.65 a share as one of Apple's hottest releases. It's one of the largest current U.S. corporate cash payouts in terms of total dollars, although the 1.7 percent yield is lower than Wall Street had wanted.
Even as some on Wall Street complained the dividend was too skimpy, Whitby said it's plenty for him. He's going to use his dividend check to replace an upright piano with a baby grand for his wife.
Until now, small shareholders didn't see a return other than pride of ownership unless they sold their stock. They are elated about Apple's plans for a quarterly payback.
"We are more users than investors," said Gautam Godse, who writes a blog MacMessiah, a variation of which is his vehicle's license plate. "Our investment in the company is our way of showing that we believe in the products. We don't expect a reward. We just want the company to keep making great products. But then, lo and behold, the company rewards us."
Godse, 42, a product manager at a Los Angeles tech company, said his house is filled with Apple products. He was even featured in an Apple TV commercial for switching from a PC to a Mac in 2002. He invested some of the money he earned from that appearance in Apple stock. He said it's the best investment he ever made, feathering a college fund for his two young daughters.
Apple also has been an important part of Victor Zaud's life. Zaud, 43, who lives in Malibu and commutes to his job running the design department at Glam Media in Brisbane, grew up in Cupertino, where Apple is headquartered. He fell in love with the Macintosh when it first came out. He published a newsletter about the Mac that got him noticed at Apple, landing an internship there in 1986 when he was 16.
Zaud has been a shareholder on and off ever since, and he said he feels a deep connection to the company. Now he feels as if Apple is acknowledging that connection.
"I am happy to be a stockholder and to feel like I am investing in something I believe in and I can also be proud that it's performing well," Zaud said. "And now finally we are seeing the dividend piece. This is how stocks are supposed to work."
Alex Chang, 43, of Moraga, an executive with VerticalResponse Inc., bought Apple shares about five years ago when he started seeing breakthrough products from the company. Soon his entire family had converted from Microsoft products to Apple.
With the stock on a tear, he had been thinking about selling. The Apple dividend persuaded him to hold on to the stock longer.
"At some point I do have to sell it, but that just got slightly harder," Chang said.
Even Needham & Co. analyst Charlie Wolf is excited about the dividend. Wolf has owned shares since 1998. He has resisted his wife's requests to sell them as their value soared.
"The dividend saved my marriage," Wolf said jokingly.
Michael Yoshikami, chief executive of Destination Wealth Management, which owns Apple shares, said his clients are "always pleased" with Apple stock.
"It's an opportunity to own a growth stock that pays the same yield as a U.S. treasury bond," Yoshikami said. "The dividend is more of a kicker."
As happy as Whitby is with the dividend, he said he wouldn't have wanted one as long as Apple was investing all of its cash in the future.
"As long as Apple was taking cash and putting it into the right R&D projects for the future, it was fine for me not to have a dividend," said Whitby, who's on the board of the San Gabriel Valley Mac Users Group. "I couldn't be happier with the growth. If dividends would have slowed that down, I would not have been in favor of having one."