A few months after Steve Jobs took his first leave of absence from Apple in early 2009, Wall Street started to fall for Apple’s acting CEO Tim Cook.
Gene Munster, a prominent Apple analyst, told The Wall Street Journal in June of that year that Cook was even more essential to Apple’s future, from an investor perspective, than Jobs. “At this point,” he said, “losing Tim Cook would be a bigger deal to investors than if Steve Jobs stepped aside.”
That may have been welcome news for Cook and Apple at the time, but at least one person was unhappy: Steve Jobs.
“When Jobs heard about the press’s sterling evaluation of Cook’s performance, he hit the roof,” Yukari Iwatani Kane writes in her new book, Haunted Empire: Apple After Steve Jobs. “Cook had done an excellent job, but the leadership and skill he showed in doing so was unsettling.”
In Kane’s telling, based on interviews with current and former Apple employees, Jobs got upset at Cook and shouted: “I’m the CEO!” Cook was “unfazed” and “slipped back into the shadows” until he eventually took over as permanent CEO two years later.
This episode sheds a light on Jobs’ thinking about naming a successor and Cook’s careful maneuvering before, during and after the transition to become CEO of what was then one of the most valuable companies in the world. Jobs is portrayed in the book as genuinely wanting Apple to be successful in his absence, but perhaps not too successful. Cook, on the other hand, is portrayed as being a strong manager capable of steering the ship, but not someone likely to overshadow Jobs’ legacy.
“If Jobs was the star,” Kane writes, “then Cook was the stage manager.”
(In an unusual move, Cook issued a statement slamming the book as “nonsense” that “fails to capture Apple, Steve or anyone else in the company.”)
Wall Street doesn’t praise Cook’s performance quite as much these days. The company’s stock soared to new highs early on in Cook’s tenure, but has since tumbled back down to the low $500-range. Investors and consumers alike are waiting to see whether Apple can continue to innovate and release another breakthrough product. In short, Kane writes, Apple “now teeters at the edge of a reckoning.”
Whether the company falls off the edge depends in large part on a CEO who remains a mystery to many inside and outside the company. Cook is frequently described in the press with the same few (sometimes contradicting) words: Calm. Meticulous. Incredibly demanding. A machine who doesn’t need sleep.
Kane’s book sheds a little more like on Cook’s life and character through interviews with colleagues and people who’ve known him over the years, as well as stitching together second-hand materials. Here are a few of the things we learned about Apple’s CEO:
1. Tim Cook’s first job was delivering newspapers as a teenager — the Press-Register, a publication in his home state of Alabama. He also worked part-time with his mom at a local pharmacy.
2. His first experience running a company came while he was still in school at Auburn University. While working at Reynolds Aluminum as part of an educational program, the company laid off much of its staff. He ended up working closely with the president to help oversee the company.
3. Cook wanted to be an engineer. He studied industrial engineering in college and was described by one teacher as “a solid B-plus or A-minus student.”
4. Cook may have had grand ambitions to be rise to the top from his first days at the company. He broke with tradition for operations executives at the company and requested to have a “small office kitty-corner” to Steve Jobs’ office. “Few people thought much of it at the time,” Kane writes, “but they would later look back at it as an indication of the new leader’s ambition.”
5. Cook reportedly referred to himself as the “Attila the Hun of inventory.”
6. Over the years, recruiters have approached Cook with offers to serve as the CEO of other big tech companies like Dell and Motorola. He never budged.
7. Cook can be nearly as devastating in his dealings with staff as his predecessor Steve Jobs. He isn’t one for small talk. Instead, he grills employees by asking the same question over-and-over, or else waiting silently for long periods of time for a satisfactory answer, all while nursing a can of Mountain Dew or an energy bar. On one occasion, he calmly told a planner: “Your numbers make me want to jump out that window over there.”
8. Cook called his mother every week even when he was traveling around the world to handle issues with Apple’s supply chain. (Extra fact: his parents never used computers.)
9. He is very frugal both as a manager and in his personal life. Cook lived in a rental for years without air conditioning and, apparently, buys his underwear at Nordstrom’s half-yearly sale. As a manager, he is described as someone who “would haggle over a nickel to drive profits.”
10. Cook shied away from personal dealings with employees and worked out a different gym. However, as CEO, he does eat lunch with random employees in the Apple cafeteria, something Jobs rarely did.
BONUS: Tim Cook claims to not have a fear of failing. “If you start fearing things, then you don’t try anything new or different,” he once said in an interview with his alumni magazine. “If it doesn’t work out, it’s not the end of my world. I’ll go ride my bike.”