By Jim Karpen updated on 12/21/2012
Barack Obama got Time magazine's nod for Person of the Year, as might be expected, but less expected may have been Apple CEO Tim Cook's selection as one of 4 runners-up. If you've ever wondered who Tim Cook is and what he means for the future of Apple, I urge you to read Lev Grossman's brilliant profile of him. Here's how he describes the way in which Cook contrasts with the late founder Steve Jobs: "Jobs was loud, brash, unpredictable, uninhibited and very often unshaven. Cook isn’t. He doesn’t look like the CEO of Apple, he looks more like an Apple product: quiet, tidy, carefully curated, meticulously tooled and at the same time strangely warm and inviting. He doesn’t look like Jobs, he looks like something Jobs would have made. Cook’s flawless cap of white hair could have been designed by Jony Ive and fabricated in China out of brushed aluminum."
Grossman tells a fascinating story about how Cook came to work at Apple. It was 1997 and Jobs had just recently returned to Apple after his exile. The company was projected to lose $1 billion that year, and most were saying the company was doomed. Cook had just been hired away from IBM to be a vice president at Compaq, which was a top personal computer manufacturer at the time. Apple contacted Cook and wanted him to meet with Jobs. Grossman quotes Cook as saying that, having just accepted a top position at Compaq, there was pretty much zero chance that he'd go to work for Apple. But five minutes into the meeting with Jobs, Cook knew that he was going to make the jump.
Simply put, he was sold on Jobs's vision. At the time, personal computer manufacturers, including Compaq, were giving up on the consumer market and targeting the enterprise. And Steve Jobs wanted to "double down" on the consumer market. Here he was, CEO of a failing company, deciding to go against the current. The rest, as they say, is history, with Apple now being the most highly valued company in the world and having over $120 billion in cash reserves. Cook realized that Jobs was right, and he resigned his position at Compaq to head Apple's marketing and distribution.
And he was brilliant at it. Have you ever gone online and tracked your shipment of an Apple product from China to your door? That's Tim Cook's doing. No warehouses, no inventory: just straight from the factory to your door. He instituted a just-in-time manufacturing model that was hugely efficient and cost-effective. It's one of the reasons that Apple has been able to scale up so rapidly as a company.
Grossman's profile talks about Cook's roots as a working-class kid from a very small town in Alabama, and his rise up through the corporate ranks. As Apple CEO, Grossman says, Cook has done what "you’d expect from an operations genius: he’s made all the existing product-improving machinery run even faster and smoother than it already did." And even better, because of his long experience with manufacturing in China, he knew this could be one of Apple's biggest markets. And it's to his credit that Apple's products are now a big hit there, with huge upside potential. (This being one of the major reasons that market analysts continue to be bullish on Apple's stock.)
The big question remains, will Cook succeed at bringing The Next Big Thing from Apple? Grossman writes, "His critics say Cook lacks a true technologist’s vision, but it would be more accurate to say that he has yet to show his hand." So Grossman pops the question: will Cook and Apple still be focused on The Next Big Thing. "Yes. Yes. Most definitely," he replies smiling. Writes Grossman: "When that happens, that’s when Cook will show his hand, and we’ll get a look below the surface. He’ll do the unexpected thing and double down on something new. And when he does, that’s when the rest of the world will see what Jobs saw in him."