Apple’s Deep Bench Faces Challenges


There are few chief executives who are as closely identified with a company as Steve Jobs has been with Apple Inc. Now that he is stepping down as chief executive— although he will be chairman—it will largely be up to his deputies to make sure that the company continues to stay ahead of the competition with trend-setting products and services that impress consumers.

Since Mr. Jobs returned to Apple in 1997 after being ousted in 1985 from the company he founded, he has brought the company back from the brink of bankruptcy, revived its Macintosh computer business and played an unusually important role in the introduction of ground-breaking products like the iPod, iPhone and iPad.

As CEO, he provided a charismatic persona and sharp instinct for knowing what consumers want. But his bench is considered a strong management team that has largely stayed out of the limelight until now.

His successor, Tim Cook, 50 years old, is the chief operating officer to whom he handed the reins of the company three times – once in 2004 when Mr. Jobs was recuperating from pancreatic cancer surgery, once in early 2009 when he took a six month medical leave of absence for a liver transplant and again in early 2011 for another unexplained medical leave.

Mr. Cook isn’t the showman that Mr. Jobs was, but people who know him call him an “operational genius” who was responsible for crafting Apple’s current supply chain system and helping to transform the company into one of the most efficient electronics manufacturers today.

The Alabama native, who majored in industrial engineering at Auburn University (he is a big Tigers football fan) and earned a master’s in business administration at Duke University, was being groomed to become a top executive at Compaq Computer Corp. when Mr. Jobs recruited him in 1998.

“Tim was the ultimate decision maker,” said Greg Petsch, who was Mr. Cook’s boss at Compaq as the head of global manufacturing. Mr. Petsch remembers him as being tough, but calm unlike Mr. Jobs, who is known for his fiery temper. “You can be a tough manager, and never have to raise your voices just by defining the requirements upfront. [Tim] was very specific in terms of his expectations,” he said.

At Apple, he oversaw the manufacturing of its computers for several years before he was given responsibility for the company’s world-wide sales and its Macintosh computer division. He became chief operating officer in 2005.

People, who know him at Apple, say he is polite but persistent and unyielding in his demands. They also say that he can absorb a huge amount of data and quickly pinpoint any problems.

In addition to Mr. Cook, Apple’s recent innovations have also been helped by deputies including Jonathan Ive, an Apple senior vice president who oversees the company’s industrial-design team. Described by one person who knows him as “sharing a brain with Steve,” Mr. Ive and his group has been responsible for coming up with the physical look and feel of products that has helped set Apple apart from competitors.

Scott Forstall, who leads the team responsible for the iPhone’s operating system and other software, Eddie Cue, Apple’s vice president of Internet services who is regarded as an all-purpose fixer, and Philip Schiller, who runs world-wide marketing are also important figures, who have been part of Mr. Jobs’s inner circle for many years.

Over the last few years, Mr. Jobs has appeared to endorse his leadership team by sharing the stage with many of them at company media events.

But longtime Apple watchers, who have witnessed how the company unraveled after Mr. Jobs left the company in 1985, worry that the company could eventually be lost again without Mr. Jobs’s dominant personality and killer instinct.

Retention of the current bench may also be difficult since Apple’s stock price has surged in recent years, allowing executives to make fortunes from stock options during their careers at the company and giving them less incentive to remain.

Ron Johnson, senior vice president of Apple retail who was the mastermind behind the success of Apple stores, for example, is leaving in November to take the helm of J.C. Penney Co. Mac software engineering chief Bertrand Serlet left in March.

If most of them do stay, some people believe that the team is fully capable of managing Apple, particularly now that the company’s biggest growth is behind it and it is entering a new phase of having to sustain its business momentum.