Tim Cook’s vision for Apple, and its cash

Apple Event 10/4 Tim Cook iPhones

Apple Event 10/4 Tim Cook iPhonesAt Goldman Sachs’ investor conference on Tuesday, Apple CEO Tim Cook gave some rare color on how he views not only his own job as Steve Jobs’ successor but also his views on the company’s $98 billion cash pile. While he did not make investors’ day by announcing a dividend, he did offer them more insight on his priorities and style of leadership. In short, he is not planning on changing the company, but he also doesn’t plan on looking backward.

Cook did talk at great length about his view of the potential growth opportunities for the iPhone, iPad and Mac. But just as important for investors who want a clue as to where the company is going in Steve Jobs’ absence, Cook also opened up a bit on how he plans to make his own mark on Apple. He is very obviously not Steve Jobs, something he’s been repeatedly reminded of by the press and Wall Street since it first became apparent he would likely take the reins from Jobs permanently. And while it’s clear he has learned from Jobs in many ways — peppering his sentences with words like “amazing” and “incredible” and espousing his belief in the supremacy of Apple’s vision and extreme focus — Cook is passionate about Apple in his own way.

One of the things he takes very seriously is his role as the caretaker of Apple and what Jobs created. He said:

Apple is this unique company, unique culture that you can’t replicate. And I’m not going to witness or prevent the slow undoing of it — because I believe in it so deeply. Steve drilled in all of us over many years that the company should revolve around great products and we should stay extremely focused on a few things rather than so many that we did nothing well. And we should only go into markets where we can make  a significant contribution to society, not just sell a lot of products. Along with keeping excellent as an expectation of everything at Apple, these are the things I focus on.

Sure, we all think of Cook as the spreadsheet-and-numbers nerd, but he is becoming a salesman too: During the Q&A session, he recommended at least three times that listeners go buy an Apple TV.

It’s not a secret that the things that made Jobs tick are not the same for his successor. And Cook, who is a notoriously private person, is starting to show what those things are to company outsiders. For him, it seems, rather than inventing the future or ruminating on big ideas, the big reward for him is winning customers and putting products in people’s hands. “There’s no better thrill than to look at an audience and see people using iPods or iPads,” he said. “These are the things that bring a smile to my face, and there is no substitute for that.”

Cook’s view on cash

One of the ways Cook may turn out to be different from Jobs is what happens under his watch with the company’s cash and liquid assets. Jobs was very adamant that no dividend or share buybacks or large acquisitions be made, in order to keep Apple totally out of debt and independent should the company hit rough financial waters. Cook has signaled he’s not nearly as extreme in his position — several times, including on Tuesday, he has reminded investors he is “not religious” about keeping cash or not.

So what is his attitude? He cleared up any ideas that Apple just sits on its pile of cash (or goes swimming in a lake of gold coins like Scrooge McDuck). He noted that the company has spent “billions” on its supply chain, acquisitions, retail operations and company infrastructure:

Yes, we still have a lot. I guess I’m saying we’re judicious. We’re deliberate. We spend our money like it’s our last penny. And I think shareholders want us to do that. They don’t want us to act like we’re rich. We’ve never felt that way — that may sound bizarre, but it’s the truth.

Cook trotted out the same line the company has been using about its cash in the last several years, that the board is “in active discussions” about what to do with it. But this time he admitted that there is more focus than ever “because the balance has risen.” And he made another admission:

We have more cash than we need to run the business on a daily basis. 

With that he asked for patience while the board decides what to do. While it’s not terribly likely he will get it, how he’s handling the issue does demonstrate Cook’s style. He’s very much a product of the Apple/Jobs way, but he’s looking ahead and is not opposed to at least thinking a little differently about the way things have always been done.

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