Tim Cook emerges from shadow of Steve Jobs


Apple CEO Tim Cook has suffered from inevitable comparisons with the iconic Steve Jobs, with many critics branding him an ‘inferior model’. But he has quietly stamped his mark on the company. Zach James profiles him

In 1998, stock in a US technology company named Apple Inc was trading at just US$17 a share. The company had been losing sales for years and was commonly considered on the verge of extinction.

It was hunting for someone to trim their losses by tidying up their supply chain. Their search led them to Tim Cook, the Vice President of Corporate Materials at Compaq, the largest personal computer company in the world. Compaq was fresh from making two major acquisitions in the previous few months and preparing for a third worth US$9.1 billion. It had never had a stronger position in the market, so why would Cook leave?

Cook is softly spoken, measured in everything he does, and private. He has never been one for brash decisions. But he decided to accept Apple’s offer. Twelve years later, Cook told graduating students of his alma mater Auburn University why he had taken the surprising decision.

“Any purely rational consideration of cost and benefits lined up in Compaq’s favour, and the people who knew me best advised me to stay at Compaq. One CEO told me I would be a fool to leave Compaq for Apple,” he said. “Engineers are taught to make decisions analytically and largely without emotion. But there are times when a reliance on gut or intuition just seems more appropriate – when a particular course of action just feels right. And interestingly, I’ve discovered, it’s in facing life’s most important decisions that intuition seems most indispensable.”

Cook said he knew five minutes into his interview with Jobs in 1998 that he had to take the job. “I wanted to throw caution and logic to the wind and join Apple,” he said.

Cook was made Senior Vice President for Worldwide Operations and set about refocusing Apple’s production process to a simple structure of supply and demand. Products were made to order, delivered on time, and never stockpiled. He told Fortune magazine that: “You kind of want to manage it like you’re in the dairy business.. if it gets past its freshness date, you have a problem.” He was made COO in 2007 and took over as CEO when Jobs resigned in August 2011. 

Inevitable comparisons

Steve Jobs is an icon. Colleagues and rivals have always been struck by his charisma and vision. When you succeed an icon, intense scrutiny and comparisons are inevitable. That is even more the case when you are following such a cultural hero as Jobs. It must have been daunting for Cook, especially as the two men are such contrasting personalities.

Jobs had far more presence than Cook and he was a genius at both business and branding. Few people have had their relevance measured by numerical data, but Jobs has. The day CNN’s user-generated news network iReport published a false article claiming Jobs had suffered a heart attack, the value of Apple’s shares dropped by 5.4%. Similarly, when Bloomberg accidentally released an obituary of Jobs three years before his death, the internet reaction was overwhelming.

In stark contrast, Cook is far less of a public figure. He resists any call to become the new face of the company and makes fewer appearances than Jobs. Mashable have calculated that Cook’s average time on stage during broadcast presentations is 40% less than Jobs’ briefest appearances.

Cook has weathered some difficult times in his three years as CEO. By July 2012, continual legal battles with Samsung Electronics had culminated in over 50 lawsuits worldwide with a total of US$2.525 billion in dispute. The widely publicized underperformance of the Maps application led to both the release of a personal apology from several executives and, allegedly, the firing of Senior Vice President of iOS Software Scott Forstall, who the Wall Street Journal reported had refused to sign the apology.

In 2013, Apple was found guilty of conspiring with publishers to fix the price of e-books in order to challenge Amazon’s dominance of the market. Though Judge Denise Cote ruled that “Apple played a central role in facilitating and executing that conspiracy”, the technology giant had already settled out of court three weeks before the trial – at which they would have faced over US$840 million in potential damages.

 Personal attacks

Occasional personal attacks on Cook are often caused by comparisons with Jobs. The satirical website The Onion summed up the tendency in a response to his 2013 keynote speech. Their article positioned Cook as Apple’s newest product, comparing it unfavourably with the previous model: “(He) exhibited such features as artificial excitement, a fully quavering voice, and what appeared to be a near total lack of inspiration. Industry sources reported that while many loyal Apple customers were largely unenthusiastic about the panicked man, they remained quite happy with the previous model, discontinued in 2011.”

Recently, however, Tim Cook’s Apple has been heralded by Greenpeace as having “made significant improvements in their energy transparency” and being “the most innovative and most aggressive in pursuing its commitment to be 100% renewably powered”.

The redesigned iMac, released in 2012, used 68% less material and generated 67% fewer carbon emissions than earlier iterations. Apple’s 2012 Environmental Footprint Report states that their goal is to “power every facility at Apple entirely with energy from renewable sources – solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal”, and in March 2013 the company released another report detailing how this would be achieved.

‘When you succeed an icon, intense scrutiny and comparisons are inevitable. That is even more the case when you are following such a cultural hero as Jobs’

Critics argue that some decisions are anything but green. Gluing batteries into the 2012 Macbook Pro significantly reduced the recycling potential of that model. Apple, they say, rarely provides specific data breakdowns, which seems to indicate a lack of transparency, although Greenpeace has said Apple is making progress in this field too.

Despite all the complications, Apple continues to sell. Cook is the highest paid CEO in the world. Apple has overtaken Coca-Cola as the most valuable brand on the planet. Some 6,000,000,000 iOS devices had been sold by the end of 2013. Cook chooses to work outside of the spotlight and to focus less on the theatrics and revelations his predecessor executed so well.

Referring back to his Auburn University address, it becomes evident that his priorities are far less performative. “In business, as in sports, the vast majority of victories are determined before the beginning of the game; we rarely control the timing of our opportunities, but we can control our preparation. Prepare – and your chance will come.”

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