If the math is right, Apple’s (NASDAQ:AAPL) CEO Tim Cook has been at the helm for 218 days. That’s not long enough for Steve Jobs’ memory and personality to fade away, but it is long enough to start drawing some conclusions about how things might be changing for the consumer electronics giant.
It’s a discussion worth having, too, especially for investors. For better or worse, Steve Jobs has been synonymous with Apple for well over a decade, and with Mr. Jobs passing last year, doubts that Apple would remain the leader of the consumer technology universe started to surface.
Those doubts were magnified knowing the keys to the Apple kingdom were being handed over to a man who’s claim to fame was being an “operational genius” — not exactly inspiring stuff.
Well, with the dust starting to settle and the early assumptions being laid to rest, it’s time to start taking more than just a superficial look at the obvious Tim Cook qualities.
It’s time to really start judging whether he’s the best guy to head Apple.
Not Really Game-Changing
Odds are good you’re already aware Tim Cook is more into charity than Steve Jobs was. The company has donated more than $100 million to charitable causes during his seven-month tenure, whereas Steve Jobs wouldn’t have cared if the total giving remained at zero forever.
And of course, now Apple is paying a dividend, which is something that never would have happened under Steve Jobs, who was perpetually (and usually needlessly) worried about liquidity.
Frankly, though, while those are the hot buttons the media has fixated on, they’re really not that important to growth investors, who are more concerned about income statements, a competitive edge and Apple’s differentiation. To that end …
Very Relevant to Investors
It’s difficult to be critical of Steve Jobs’ leadership when he turned Apple from a $30 billion company in the early 2000s into a $500 billion-plus company today. Profit margins and profit growth have been ridiculously strong. too. Make no mistake. though — Apple didn’t make one penny by selling anything that wasn’t 100% conceived by Steve Jobs. It worked, but it makes one wonder how many good (i.e. marketable) product ideas were shot down within the corporation’s walls.
Tim Cook, in contrast, isn’t an idea man. He knows it, too, which is precisely why he’s wholly open to new ideas. That’s not to say he’s going to shelf iPads and iPhones, or cancel the budding Apple TV idea. But the next cool consumer gizmo from Apple probably won’t be something Cook cooked up. In fact, odds are good this “open-door” idea policy will lead to a wider, more diverse product line from Apple.
That might be a little uncomfortable for shareholders who are fully immersed in the ways of Steve Jobs. While diversifying your product base is a wise idea for most companies, for Apple, doing one thing really, really, stunningly well was a business model that worked. Without an obsessive captain driving for the perfect user experience, though, that singular focus might become a liability for Apple like it is for most other companies.
Along those same lines, while Tim Cook’s accolade of “operational genius” might seem lame, it’s a description that understates the value of that skill.
It’s rarely said — or even recognized — but a great deal of Apple’s operational success had to do with its ability to squeeze and tweak its supply chains, up to and including squeezing competitors out. Whereas Steve Jobs realized that Apple had this kind of clout, Cook is likely to not only recognize it, but also to use it as a finite corporate strategy.
Less Silliness/More Seriousness
Last but not least, Cook is going to run Apple more like a major publicly traded corporation and less like a smarmy cult.
Although he never said or even implied it, one could almost sense a certain glib giddiness from Steve Jobs when supply couldn’t meet demand for new product launches. That scarcity was part of the mystique.
The same willingness to go over the top in making a point also affected Apple on legal fronts. Steve Jobs didn’t just want to compete with Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android devices — he wanted to destroy and punish those who had anything to do with it, no matter how ridiculous the effort seemed.
Case in point: Apple’s suit against Samsung, which argues that one of Samsung’s Android phones copied the iPhone design because it was “a rectangular product with four evenly rounded corners, a flat clear face covering the front of the product, a large display screen under the clear surface.” Yes, it’s a ridiculous argument, but no less ridiculous than Steve Jobs (literally) declaring “thermonuclear war” on Android; the lawsuits were just a battle front.
Tim Cook, on the other hand, sees a limited supply of product as leaving revenue on the table, which is why the recent launch of the newest iPad fully met demand. Cook made sure there were enough.
In the same non-silly vein, Cook is mulling calling a legal truce with Android, and instead just focusing on out-executing the competition. It’s a 180-degree turnaround, but there’s a reason it’s what 99% of the other companies in the world would do.
Of course, only time will ultimately tell what Apple will look like three, five and 10 years from now, but from what we can see today, it’s going to look different. The undertow seems to favor more products (and therefore less focus), less attitude, but more efficiency — and maybe even wider net margins. It’s not only different, but a little boring.
That doesn’t need to spook current investors, though, because different and boring aren’t inherently bad. Just adjust your expectations accordingly.
As of this writing, James Brumley did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.