A stellar turn as chief procurement officer helped Cook become Steve Jobs’s designated successor at Apple.
Anyone who takes part in a meeting with Tim Cook must become accustomed to the sound of silence. The noise most executives associate with the Apple CEO, formerly the company’s head of procurement, is the sound he makes tearing the wrapper off one of the energy bars he is so fond of.
Cook’s quiet diligence – he is usually on email by 4.30am and at his desk by 6am – was a useful counterpoint to Apple’s abrasive presiding genius, Steve Jobs. Reflecting on the contrast, Jobs said once: “I’m a good negotiator but he’s probably better than me because he is such a cool customer.”
Yet Cook is willing to take risks: leaving Compaq Computers, where he was procurement and supply chain manager, to join Apple was, he admitted, “throwing caution to the winds”.
The son of a shipyard worker, Cook grew up in Alabama, studied industrial engineering and got an MBA, before spending 12 years in IBM’s personal computer division, rising to director of fulfilment in North America. In 1998, after six months at Compaq, he joined Apple as senior vice-president of worldwide operations. Jobs wanted someone who wasn’t “old wave manufacturing”. Cook soon proved himself, reducing 100 key suppliers to 24, cutting better deals, reducing inventory from months to days and halving the time it took Apple to make a computer.
He expected others to be just as single-minded. Notified of difficulties with one Chinese supplier, he said: “Someone should be in China driving this.” Half an hour later, he glanced at an operations executive and said quietly: “Why are you still here?” The executive left the meeting, drove to the airport and hopped on a plane to China.
Since becoming Jobs’s successor, Cook has made the most of Apple’s R&D spend. It invests only 3.5% of its revenue in R&D (compared with 21% for Facebook and 15% for Google), relying on suppliers of crucial core technologies to drive advances. As Apple sold 230m iPhones in 2014, there is no shortage of companies willing to pitch a new chip, screen or camera flash.
Attention to detail has always been Cook’s forte but he is no mere box ticker. One of his first coups at Apple was to book $100m-worth of holiday season air freight months in advance – ensuring new iMacs were shipped expediently and leaving rival PC makers gasping for air (cargo).