AIB Featured Business Leader – Tim Cook
How does a boy who grew up in a small town, population 5000, become the CEO of multinational technology company Apple? The answer appears to be, with steady focus and personal integrity.
Tim Cook was born in Mobile, Alabama, and with his parents moved to nearby Robertsdale when he was 11. His father was a shipyard worker and his mother worked in a pharmacy; both hailed from rural Alabama. At the time, the town boasted just 2300 people and had but one high school, which Cook and his two brothers attended.
After school, Cook attended Auburn University and graduated in 1982 with a Bachelor of Industrial Engineering. He headed straight to IBM to work as a computer engineer. The field of information technology was exploding, and the job was a dream come true for the young Cook. He didn’t rest on his laurels, however, choosing instead to pursue further study while he worked. Cook obtained an MBA from Duke University in 1988, graduating with the extra honour of Fuqua Scholar, awarded to those in the top 10% of their class.
By 1994, Cook had become the North American Fulfilment Director at IBM, managing production and distribution throughout North and Latin America. His next move was to become the Chief Operating Officer of the reseller division of Intelligent Electronics. In 1997, he left IBM and went to work for Compaq as Vice President of Computer Materials.
Six months after making the leap, Cook got a call from Steve Jobs’ recruitment team, asking him to come in for an interview. Apple in 1998 was not the industry behemoth it is today: the company made Apple Mac computers and not much else. In these pre iDevice days, in fact, Apple was widely considered to be on the verge of extinction.
Compaq, by contrast, was the largest performing personal computer company in the world. It was also located a lot closer to Cook’s family and friends. So it’s little wonder that it took Jobs several phone calls to persuade Cook to come and meet him, but eventually, he agreed to do so.
That single meeting was enough to persuade him, thanks to Jobs’ vision and enthusiasm, including preliminary designs for what became the iMac. Cook looked at Apple’s problems and decided that this was the company in which he could make a difference. So against his own better judgement and the advice of his peers, he packed up and moved west. By March of 1998, he was Senior Vice President of Worldwide Operations.
Within a year, Apple’s fortunes began to turn around and they reported profits for the first time in several years. Some of this was thanks to Cook’s streamlining of operations, which cut overhead and allowed Apple to concentrate on long term planning. His team made advance investments in technologies such as flash memory, which became a core component of tablets and music devices from 2005, but had barely been recognised as essentials prior to that. These early decisions paid dividends in keeping costs down later.
In January 2007, Cook was promoted to lead operations. Jobs had received an initial diagnosis of pancreatic cancer in 2003, and his health was beginning to fail. During 2009, Cook stepped in as acting CEO while Jobs took medical leave to manage his condition, and would do so again two more times before Jobs passed away in October 2011. Cook was appointed as CEO six weeks prior on August 4, 2011.
Many expected Cook to be a caretaker leader, following in Jobs’ path and taking a careful approach to the company. Instead, Apple’s fortunes have soared once more, increasing its stock value, cash on hand and assets dramatically since his he began in the role. That’s thanks to its products, but also due to Cook’s handling of management issues, which included weeding out contentious figures for a more harmonious working environment.
Cook hasn’t played it safe in any other area, either. In 2014, he came out publicly as gay, saying that he chose to sacrifice some of his privacy in the hopes that it would provide support to others. He’s been a vocal supporter of the two-term Obama administration, marriage equality and workplace equality. He’s spoken out about racial, sexual and gender inequality and Alabama’s need to be more progressive on all of these issues. In 2015, he was inducted into the Alabama Academy of Honor, Alabama’s highest honour, and was awarded an honorary doctorate from George Washington University.
He has donated $50 million to Stanford hospitals, and the same again to charity Product Red which works to combat viruses including AIDS and malaria. In 2015, he announced his intention to leave his entire fortune to charity. Cook is currently worth around $785 million.
Steady, determined and with an unerring eye for the right decision, Cook has broken beyond the boundaries of his childhood in a way most of us could only dream of.
This article was written by Tanya Ashworth-Keppel on behalf of the Australian Institute of Business. All opinions are that of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of AIB. The following sources were used to compile this article: Business Insider, Forbes, Fast Company, Alabama Local News, Fortune and Bloomberg Business.
Image credit: Recode