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Task of replacing Apple’s icon

Tim Cook is not Steve Jobs but those he has worked with say he will still be a top-notch executive.

Written by The Financial Times |
August 29, 2011 3:32:54 am

For many of Apple’s customers,investors and fans,the most important thing about new chief executive Tim Cook is that he is not Steve Jobs.

Many consider Jobs,who resigned his post late on Wednesday,to be the best chief executive of his generation. Since returning to the head of a near-bankrupt Apple in 1997 after an earlier ousting in a management shake-up,Jobs re-established Apple’s early role as a leader in personal computers. He went on to up-end the music business,the phone handset industry and consumer computers again,with the 2010 launch of the iPad tablet.

Cook is not seen as a product visionary,and he has none of the rock-star charisma that made Jobs an icon even for people with no particular love for gadgetry.

But that is very different from saying that Cook will not be a top-notch chief executive,which many people interviewed by the Financial Times who have worked closely with him say that he will be.

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“The board has complete confidence that Tim is the right person to be our next CEO,” Art Levinson,Apple director and chairman of Genentech,the US biotech group,said in the company’s announcement late on Wednesday. “Tim’s 13 years of service to Apple have been marked by outstanding performance and he has demonstrated remarkable talent and sound judgment in everything he does.”

If Cook’s weakness is a lack of artistic vision,he already has proved his willingness to trust the instincts of Apple’s designers,who have an unusual position of power over engineers at the company.

“There is so much more to Apple than any one individual,” said Gartner analyst Michael Gartenberg. “Competitors would be foolish to think this changes the landscape.”

Jobs’ departure will have “no impact from a product strategy point of view for probably a couple of years,” said Charles Golvin,Forrester analyst. “The next wave of [Apple products has already been designed.”

That existing pipeline of products could enable Apple to sustain what has already given the company,with the iPhone and iPad,impressive momentum. If it includes a better way of bringing the internet to television screens — something the Apple TV device has attempted with limited success so far — it could also create a big new business that would produce a gush of cash for Apple over the next five years,said Mark Anderson,a US technology analyst and chief executive of Strategic News Service.

After leaving a key logistics job at Compaq Computer to join Apple in 1998,Cook played a critical role behind the scenes in bringing the floundering company back from the brink. Apple was then selling computers that were more expensive and performed more poorly than its PC rivals. A supply-chain specialist at Compaq,Cook closed Apple’s struggling manufacturing facilities and outsourced production to improve quality.

He was a stern taskmaster,those involved in the process said,and his demands were as crucial to restoring Apple’s profitability as were the elegant new products that were dreamed up by Jobs.

Rival companies have repeatedly tried to poach him since then,and he was thought to be a candidate when the post of chief executive at Hewlett-Packard was vacant last year. Each time he has chosen to stay and Apple awarded him $35m worth of restricted stock in September.

The 50-year-old son of a shipyard worker,Cook was methodical in his labours before joining Apple. He spent a dozen years at IBM and had short stints in more senior positions at computer resellers before Compaq.

He is as demanding as the notoriously finicky Jobs but more predictable,which former Apple executives said could make the company run more smoothly in future.

He is famous even at Apple for putting in long hours and a great attention to detail. Unsatisfactory answers are greeted with a hard stare,rather than Jobs’ customary rant,insiders say.

“He’s not an emotional guy,but people knew when he wasn’t happy with them,” one former peer said this year. “If one of his teams wasn’t delivering,there was no confusion around it.”

Equipped with dry humour,Cook has modest tastes. He has long rented a house in Palo Alto,in Silicon Valley.

A passionate supporter of Auburn University’s football team,with pennants and other paraphernalia adorning his office and home,he often flies to Alabama for their games.

Cook sports close-cropped greying hair,wire-rimmed glasses and keeps in physical shape with a gruelling pre-dawn gym routine.

Mike Abramsky,an analyst with RBC,said that the key transition would be in Apple’s process,as it moves “from icon-led to team-led,from disruptive innovation to continuous innovation.”

“Most innovations at Apple are created through small teams,and Steve’s approach to design and execution remains steeped into Apple’s culture,” he said.

Joseph Menn & Richard Waters© 2011 The Financial Times Limited

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