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The Current Succession Picture at Apple

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Earlier, I wrote about how while Steve Jobs’ second medical leave may be unfortunate, it isn’t likely to derail Apple, because the company has a strong executive roster. It’s not exactly clear who would be first in line to fill Jobs’ shoes in the eventuality that a permanent replacement becomes necessary, but a shortage of good candidates is the least of Apple’s (s aapl) worries. Here’s a detailed look at those candidates.

Tim Cook

Cook is Apple’s chief operating officer. He joined the company in 1998, after a brief stint as Compaq’s (s hpq) VP of corporate materials. Before that, he was COO of Intelligent Electronic’s computer resale division, and spent more than a decade at IBM (s ibm) as the director of North American fulfillment. Cook was originally brought on as Apple’s senior VP for worldwide operations, and was promoted to COO in 2007.

At Apple, Cook’s chief accomplishment appears to have been in cleaning up inefficiencies in Apple’s supply chain, which went a long way toward helping the company increase profit margins to the high levels it enjoys today. Cook has stepped in to fill Jobs’ shoes on two previous occasions: first during 2004 when Jobs left for two months to undergo treatment for pancreatic cancer, and then in 2009 during Jobs’ first extended medical leave, when Jobs underwent liver transplant surgery.

Because of Cook’s past success filling in for Jobs, he’s at the top of the list in terms of candidates for the CEO role in the future. He may not have the showmanship of Jobs, but few — if any — corporate leaders do. And he has something no one else worthy of consideration can claim: nearly a decade of experience actually running the company. According to a 2008 profile of Cook by Fortune, the COO has been largely responsible for Apple’s day-to-day operations for years, both during and in between Jobs’ absences.

Phil Schiller

Apple Senior VP of Worldwide Product Marketing Phil Schiller is another likely candidate for promotion at Apple. Schiller’s resumé includes executive positions in marketing at Macromedia (s adbe) and FirePower Systems, Inc., and he’s been incredibly involved with the company Apple since Jobs’ return. Schiller is one of only two Apple executives currently on Twitter.

Schiller also stepped in to fill the void when Jobs left for his first extended medical absence, mostly as the public face of the company during media events. He was the primary presenter at the keynote for the last Macworld attended by Apple in 2009, and for the WWDC keynote in June of the same year. Not everyone thought that Schiller filled the role of spokesperson as well as Jobs does, but then again, who could?

While Schiller has done a great job with Apple’s marketing over the years, he may not have the technical chops to occupy the CEO role and maintain the focus of vision that Jobs brings to the table. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Biology, and doesn’t seem to have been heavily involved in the technological side of Apple’s innovations.

Jonathan Ive

Jony Ive, as he’s commonly known, is Apple’s senior VP of industrial design. He’s responsible for the iconic look of Apple’s most successful products, including the iMac, the iPod and the iPhone. Ive began work at Apple in 1992, and secured his current title upon Jobs’ return to the company in 1997. Ive’s work experience prior to joining Apple is limited, but he did work for a short time at London’s Tangerine design agency after graduating from Northumbria University and before moving to the U.S.

It’s hard to understate Ive’s effect on Apple’s product design. He’s received countless awards for his work at Apple, and he’s widely regarded as the person who makes Steve Jobs’ ideas a reality. Some of his work is even exhibited at MoMA. Ive is also the second-youngest on this list at only 43.

If you’ve watched Apple’s promotional videos featuring Ive, you know that aside from Jobs himself, there’s no one at Apple that speaks with such genuine passion and intensity about the products the company creates. Of the people on this list, Ive might be the closest to Jobs in terms of public appeal, though he seems less eager to occupy the spotlight. In fact, Ive might see the CEO role as a distraction from the business of making outrageous and innovative ideas a reality.

Scott Forstall

Apple’s Senior VP in charge of iOS software Scott Forstall was with Jobs at NeXT before the company was acquired by Apple. Forstall was instrumental in creating Mac OS X, and oversaw the introduction of OS X Leopard before being put in charge of Apple’s mobile operating system efforts. Forstall is the second Apple executive with a Twitter account, though he has yet to actually tweet.

Forstall has participated in numerous Apple events, including 2010’s Jan. 27 event introducing the iPad. Forstall also has the technical chops, with two degrees in programming-related fields from Stanford University. He’s also the youngest in this list at 41.

What Ive is for Apple hardware, Forstall appears to be for the software side. And since his role’s focus on iOS mirrors the sea change the company underwent after the success of the iPhone (and later, the iPad), Forstall is in a perfect position at the heart of Apple’s core business (if you don’t think it’s the core yet, check Apple’s last earnings figures). Only his relative inexperience stands out as a point against him, but that might look like a strength to Jobs and other key inside decision makers.


Keen Apple-watchers will note that not all of the company’s executives are profiled above. The rest of that list includes SVP and CFO Peter Oppenheimer, SVP Software Engineering Bertrand Serlet, SVP and General Counsel Bruce Sewell, SVP Retail Ron Johnson, SVP Operations Jeff Williams, and SVP Mac Hardware Engineering Bob Mansfield. While it is possible that these people are also under consideration for the top job, I’d argue that they aren’t among the top candidates for consideration. In some cases, their area of expertise is too far from Apple’s current focus, and in others, the individuals in question just don’t have the personality or presence to occupy the role.

Apple could also go outside the company to fill the CEO role, but it won’t if Steve Jobs has anything to say about who his successor will be. The corporate culture at Apple is too important to the products it creates to allow for handing the keys over to an outsider. And of course, it’s possible that Jobs may resume the top job after this leave, but if not, Apple’s bench is deep. No one can replace Jobs’ role in the company, but there are plenty who could take on his job.

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26 Responses to “The Current Succession Picture at Apple”

  1. nicholasT

    A very honest and clear article. Since SJ’s announcement, I got the the feeling from most media reports that without SJ, Apple is next to nothing. Nothing can be further from the truth. How anyone can doubt that SJ had not already given thought to his eventual replacement is beyond me. SJ is a very private person. Let’s respect that.

    Good luck to SJ and Apple!

  2. Seems pretty clear Ive doesn’t want to have the high profile more or less required of the CEO position. The article touches on this, but further, one need only be paying attention. It’s been obvious that Jobs loves Jony’s creativity and has put him out there, sort of sold the public on him so to speak. The opportunity was there for him to step forward and fill some of that “face of Apple” role Jobs has held for so long. The fact that he hasn’t stepped forward and become more widely known by the general public pretty strongly suggests he doesn’t want to be that known.

    Which is fine – to be honest, more power to him. Knowing yourself & what you like & don’t like is a good thing. He’s tremendous at industrial design. No reason to do anything else if that’s what he loves & is surely very well paid for it.

  3. The people at Apple have done such a good job in the last years. So we should also talk about them. High ranking in the hierarchy or not; they deserve our respect. On thing is for sure: people with their ego and nothing else, like the ones in the 80ties (Sculley and Co.) should be avoided… but how? Unfortunately the vast majority are fakes, like our bankers.
    (Europe – Switzerland)

  4. I’m happy to see that Gigaom can still point to successful exec’s with gray hairs. Seems that every time one reads tech news, it’s all about the great success of the xyz company with 20 somthings running it. Don’t get me wrongm love the innovation from the 20 and 30 somthing group but I miss hearing about the rest of us.

  5. Andrew MacDonald

    The picture of Phil Schiller in this article makes him look like an 80’s porn star. lol.

    But personally I agre with Rob, Cook should be put in place to preside over Ive and Forstall.

    My second pick for CEO would be Johnny Ive himself. The article nailed it… he comes across as sooooo passionate about his products, in exactly the same way as jobs does.

    Schiller and Cook while on stage come across as trying to emulate Steve Job’s presenting style (nothing wrong with that), whereas Ive comes across as completely genuine about his passion for whatever he is talking about. I don’t get the feeling he is trying to by Jobs 2.0 that I get for Cook and Schiller

  6. Why do you and so many others comment and second-guess the proven masters of the business universe on subjects you cannot possibly qualify to offer an opinion upon?
    Is it verbal diarrhoea?
    Is it bozoism?
    Please do tell.

    • It would. It is a sign of popularity. Knowing how popular Jobs is, Twitter would be a tool for another Appl exec to build a personal fan club. You don’t have to be a Twitter fan (I’m not one) to see the potential.

  7. I’m taking half my shares off the table tomorrow just in case. It has been said that the only thing that could cause a significant tumble in AAPL would be a problem with Jobs health. I’d say this leave is a precursor to that possibility.

  8. Let’s face it, you don’t just replace a Jobs.

    But a slight restructuring could produce a team that might keep the current trend going there.

    Cook presiding over Ive and Forstall maybe.

    You definitely don’t want anyone that worked at Compaq and IBM having anything to do with creative product design there.

    Who knows.

  9. The internal shortlist is Tim Cook and only Tim Cook. I can’t believe anybody would think otherwise.

    Knowing Jobs, however, I’d presume he cloned himself many years ago, and imparted all his “wisdom” on this boy in order for him to take the helm.