Apple’s unsung hero - Supply Management

Apple’s unsung hero

8 November 2011
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that now the obituaries have all been printed following the death of Steve Jobs, co-founder of 
tech giant Apple, it will mean the end of all the hero-worshipping articles. A new biography also explores his genius. Buyers, though, will not be surprised to learn that beneath all the Jobs-worship was a real business story that has probably received too little attention. In 1998, a young executive called Tim Cook joined the company. Over the next few years, he set about improving and streamlining Apple’s production and logistics processes. He persuaded Jobs that Apple should stop manufacturing its products and instead outsource production to Asia. It was a bold and not uncontroversial decision. Even now there is some unease about the working conditions where iPads and iPhones are manufactured (and Apple’s own CSR report earlier this year highlighted some issues). But Jobs – when he was not getting the lion’s share of the credit for the company’s success – was always ready to concede that the Cook-inspired decision to reorganise Apple’s supply chain had been central to its remarkable performance. When Jobs’ health started to fail, Cook was the person he turned to as stand-in chief executive. And when Jobs finally had to step aside, Cook was the obvious replacement. Apple’s products are rightly admired and Jobs quite properly hailed as one of the great business geniuses of this age. But the unseen nuts and bolts of this company are important too. And they have to do with good old-fashioned disciplines of lean supply chains and effective procurement. Apple and the collapse of capitalism Apple gizmos are favoured by many of the cool people who have put themselves at the head of the ‘occupy everywhere’ movement that has struck in New York, London and other cities internationally. At the time of writing, the tented villages are still occupying some prime real estate around the world. London’s St Paul’s cathedral was shut for the first time since World War Two and the protest continues – without it being very clear exactly what it is calling for. Is capitalism about to collapse? Well, the eurozone is going through obvious agonies, but actual collapse seems some way off. These protestors are not offering a coherent alternative system as a replacement. So can they be ignored until the day comes when they decide to pack up and go home again? That’s not so clear either. The outrage the protestors embody is real, even if their wish-list of desired changes is not. And that is something business leaders need to take seriously. These people could be your customers or employees. They represent a genuine school of thought – that business (in particular finance) has been irresponsible, and that change is needed. Exactly what form that change should take is, however, something that is probably not going to emerge from a tented village any time soon. ☛Stefan Stern is director of strategy at PR firm Edelman and visiting professor of practice at Cass Business School
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