Apple CEO Tim Cook Finds Someone Like Him to Fill Deputy Role

Meet Tim Cook’s Tim Cook
  • Longtime deputy Jeff Williams steps into COO post Cook held
  • Moves strengthen management bench, highlight chipmaking

One of the first phone calls Tim Cook made when he joined Apple Inc. in 1998 was to Jeff Williams, a colleague he worked with for more than a decade at International Business Machines Corp. Cook had recently joined Apple co-founder Steve Jobs’ effort to turn around the then-struggling company and invited Williams out to California for an interview.

"I stopped by here out of courtesy to him but I had no interest in joining Apple," Williams, 52, said in an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek last year. "Apple had just lost $1 billion."

"And here I am."

The shared career path is continuing now after Cook tapped Williams to be Apple’s first chief operations officer since 2011, when Cook relinquished the title to succeed Jobs as CEO. Williams, not well known outside of Apple circles, has been one of Cook’s most trusted deputies, managing the company’s vast supply chain that involves hundreds of thousands of people, but also leading efforts such as the development of Apple Watch, vetting acquisitions and dealing with partners such as Foxconn. It’s a Jack-of-all-trades position that touches nearly every piece of Apple’s business.

"Jeff is hands-down the best operations executive I’ve ever worked with," Cook said in Thursday’s statement announcing the appointment.

Cook’s Cook

Williams and Cook share many characteristics: soft-spoken, avid fitness buffs and vivid memories for operational details. Both have MBAs from Duke University and spent early parts of their careers at IBM. The duo have preached collaboration at Apple, a company that has historically been siloed, and they even look similar, with short graying hair. Williams has been called "Tim Cook’s Tim Cook."

The management changes point to a potential line of succession at Apple. When Cook was in the role now filled by Williams, he stepped in as the interim CEO when Jobs had to take medical leave to battle cancer. Apple declined to comment on succession, but has said in the past that it has a plan in place and that different members of its executive team could step in.

"These strategic moves fit like a glove as Apple needed to fill the COO vacancy heading into a pivotal 2016," said Daniel Ives, managing director at FBR Capital Markets. "They really need to boost that bench behind Cook."

Hardware Focus

As part of the management changes, Apple also promoted Johny Srouji to senior vice president for hardware technologies. The more senior role is a testament to the increasing importance of chipmaking to Apple. Srouji joined Apple in 2008 and led the development of the A4 chip, which went on to power iPads and a generation of iPhones. Heralded by the Haaretz newspaper as the highest-ranking Israeli in Silicon Valley, Srouji previously held senior positions at IBM and Intel Corp. He’s a graduate of Technion, Israel’s Institute of Technology.

Apple has been investing heavily in semiconductors and unlike many other handset makers, it designs its own chips instead of buying whatever the latest product is from outside suppliers. Srouji also oversees technologies such as batteries, application processors, sensors and other internal components that are critical to the iPhone and iPad.

In another move, Phil Schiller, senior vice president of worldwide marketing, will take on leadership of the App Store. Advertising executive Tor Myhren, currently chief creative officer at Grey Worldwide, will join Apple next year as vice president of marketing communications to head Apple’s advertising efforts -- responsibilities that Schiller will be relinquishing.

Strategy, Operations

Yet the most significant change is for Williams, who becomes Cook’s top deputy at a critical time for Apple. The iPhone, which accounts for about two-thirds of sales and has been experiencing years of strong growth, is now showing signs of slowing down. Analysts in recent days have been lowering their sales forecasts amid weaker-than-projected demand.

As Apple’s product lineup expands, Williams’ ascent will allow Cook to focus more on big-picture decisions, said Tim Bajarin, an analyst who has been following Apple since the 1980s. Cook has kept a hand in Apple’s supply chain operations since becoming CEO, and this may signal he’s going to step further back, Bajarin said.

"As Apple expands its horizons, Tim needs much stronger leadership under him to allow him to be involved at the strategic level instead of the operational level," Bajarin said.

In 2013, when Cook had decided to move forward with Apple Watch and wanted to take the idea from prototype to a mass-market device, he appointed Williams to work closely with Apple’s Chief Design Officer Jony Ive to get it across the finish line. They worked through challenges related to calibrating the heart sensor, getting the software design just right and what to do with all the data that was being collected. While the watch is yet to become a mainstream hit, the project showed Cook’s trust in Williams.

It also shows Williams probably made the right decision following Cook to Apple.

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