Is Apple Auditioning Successors for Steve Jobs?

November 13th, 2008

In a recent article published by Fortune, they profiled Apple’s Chief Operating Officer, Tim Cook. Now he’s not a household name by any means, certainly in comparison to Steve Jobs, but he’s also considered a genius when it comes to making the company run smoothly and efficiently.

Take Apple’s superbly tight control on inventories. When the company was in the doldrums in the mid-1990s and hemorrhaging millions of dollars of cash, they had nary a clue about how many units to produce of a given model, or even if it should be build in the first place. Thus, they were confronted with untold numbers of unsold stock catching dust in warehouses around the world.

So if he changed nothing else, Cook’s ability to design and maintain a system where Apple can, as much as possible, build enough units of a particular model to satisfy demand and no more, would probably be sufficient to justify his salary. Sure, Apple has run short during initial production ramps of such products as the iPhone, which were in high demand. But that’s a good position to be in, and Apple tends to be conservative about such matters.

When Steve Jobs took a hiatus from Apple several years ago to recover from surgery for pancreatic cancer, Cook was, in effect, the interim CEO for two months or so, and Apple didn’t go bust. In fact, it appeared as if hardly anything changed.

Certainly, if you’ve listened to the QuickTime audio streams of Apple’s quarterly meetings with analysts, Cook’s calm, reassuring tones are well in evidence. He may not have the creative vision of a Steve Jobs, or the public persona of a rock star, but he can keep the company running properly, which is perhaps as important or more so. Indeed, perhaps the genius of Steve Jobs is that he has surrounded himself with a team of supremely talented executives to carry out his wishes. Without them, Apple would have never recovered from its perennially beleaguered status and become the huge success it is today.

So if Jobs were to become seriously ill, injured, or simply decided to give up the rat race, Apple could surely persevere, although the stock price would surely take a huge hit for a couple of quarters until Wall Street got the hint.

In a sense, Apple is the victim of its own success. So much faith in the company is invested in Steve Jobs that he could probably sneeze too loudly and severely impact the company’s stock price.

Now it is unfortunate that Apple’s board of directors hasn’t revealed any actual succession plans, although it claims to have one. That may comply with an ongoing corporate strategy of intense secrecy, but it doesn’t reassure the financial community.

At the same time, it is clear that Jobs doesn’t intend to convey the illusion that he is a one-man band. Quite often during his keynotes and other public presentations, he takes the time to thank Apple’s overworked employees for their great work in building the products he’s talking about. In recent years, his lieutenants have played greater roles in those sessions. You wonder if he isn’t gauging audience reaction to see who might be the best candidate for the CEO position.

In addition to Cook, some suggest that marketing VP Phil Schiller would be a suitable replacement for Jobs. Yes, he often assumes the role of second banana or comedy relief during a keynote, but he’s also savvy executive who has played a huge role in selling Apple’s breakthrough products.

Another potential candidate is Ron Johnson, the charismatic retail genius whom Apple recruited from Target to create their trendsetting chain of retail stores. I met Johnson at a couple of those store openings, and he impressed me as having a far friendlier disposition than the mercurial Jobs. I have no idea how he behaves behind the scenes, but his skills are undeniable. The critics said Apple would never succeed with its own company stores. How wrong they were.

There are other potential candidates, including design guru Jonathan Ive. Indeed, it’s quite clear Apple wouldn’t have to go outside the company to recruit a new CEO. 

In the end, of course, nobody wants Steve Jobs to leave. But his future is not something anyone can readily predict, not do you expect him to reveal any details until it becomes absolutely necessary. However, that recent nasty online rumor that he had suffered a major heart attack — a fake story that caused Apple to shed $10 billion in its market value in the space of a few minutes — should be evidence enough that the company needs to be more forthcoming about its future.

It’s not as if they can hire a mad scientist to clone Steve Jobs in the event the original is no longer capable of functioning at Apple. In the meantime, maybe the presence of more and more Apple executives at keynotes and other public sessions is indeed a way to audition new CEO talent, so if the worst were to occur, they’d be ready to take over.

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4 Responses to “Is Apple Auditioning Successors for Steve Jobs?”

  1. hmurchison says:

    My choice would be to promote Tim Cook to CEO and Scott Forrestal would handle the majority of the product announcements/demos.

    There’s no reason to believe that the CEO must be the Keynote whiz.

  2. Adam says:

    After 2 years in Apple Retail and 24 years of using Macs, I would heartily endorse Ron Johnson. Ron is smart, personable, and (like The Steve) thinks outside of the box. I worked in a store where we earned the right to pilot several of Ron Johnson’s programs. My manager dealt directly with him on several occasions. If Ron were named the new CEO of Apple I believe I would wait 48 to 72 hours for the stock price to tank, and then I will buy as many shares as I possibly can.


  3. KenC says:

    Bruno Serlet or Guy Kawasaki.

  4. Stephen says:

    APPLE rules.

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