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The genius behind Steve (pg. 3)

By Adam Lashinsky, senior writer
Last Updated: November 10, 2008: 10:25 AM ET

Many consider Cook aloof, though it's just as likely he's off-the-charts shy. Gina Gloski, a Boston-based semiconductor consultant, graduated from Auburn the same year and in the same industrial and systems engineering program. She was one of just a handful of women and therefore rather popular, if she does say so herself. Yet Gloski didn't know Cook until years later, when they served together on an alumni council.

"Tim's just not a real social person," says Gloski. "He's not antisocial, either. He just never seemed that interested in other people. I'm a hugger and a kisser, but I'd never feel comfortable giving Tim a hug or a kiss."

The most common observation about Cook is how temperamentally different he is from Jobs. Cook is cool, calm, and never, ever raises his voice. Jobs - well, he's not any of those things. A former Apple executive says he used to have a rehearsed line in his head on the off chance he ended up in an elevator with Jobs, who can be spontaneously fearsome. Did he have a similar canned speech for Cook? "No, because he wouldn't talk to you."

After graduating from Auburn, Cook spent the next dozen years at IBM in Research Triangle Park, N.C., picking up an MBA from Duke along the way. He showed his single-minded devotion to work, remembers Richard Daugherty, a boss from the time, by volunteering to work in the plant between Christmas and New Year's so that the company could fill all its orders for the year.

Another IBM supervisor, Ray Mays, says it was clear that Cook made for an unusual IBMer in those days. "There was an old joke at IBM," says Mays, who was a manufacturing executive in the company's PC division. "'What's the difference between IBM and a cactus? The cactus has its pricks on the outside.' Tim was exactly the opposite. He had a manner that really caused people to enjoy working with him. He was smarter than anyone else, more aggressive in a positive way than anyone else, and worked harder than anyone else."

Cook left IBM in 1994 to join the computer-reseller division of a wholesaler called Intelligent Electronics. He became COO of that division before selling it to Ingram Micro in 1997. He then went to Compaq, but had stayed for only six months when Steve Jobs hired him in early 1998. Jobs gave the new hire an office near his own.

Today that office is decorated with Auburn paraphernalia, as well as a photo of a favorite singer, Bob Dylan. A photo of Bobby Kennedy reveals another side of Cook, the idealist. Cook has said he is "tormented" at times by thinking what would have happened if R.F.K. had become President.

"He had a way of touching and relating to people of all walks of life," Cook confided recently, according to someone who knows him well. "He was one of the people who got close enough to the presidency who really loved people, who wanted to raise people up." (Cook was a registered Republican when he lived in North Carolina. More recently he donated money to Barack Obama's campaign.)

Cook also admires the way Kennedy "was comfortable standing in his brother's shadow and doing what he thought was right." Coming from a man whose most critical career phase has been almost completely overshadowed by a charismatic leader with an uncommon ability to relate to the hopes and dreams of the masses, it's a telling comment.

Lacking Jobs' design creativity

So now we know Tim Cook is impressive. But does he really have a chance of succeeding Jobs? And if he doesn't, who would?

Outside Apple, many observers, informed and otherwise, assume Cook can't be Apple's next chief executive. "Nobody would make Tim Cook CEO," says a Silicon Valley investor who travels in the Apple orbit. "That's laughable. They don't need a guy who merely" gets stuff done. "They need a brilliant product guy, and Tim is not that guy. He is an ops guy - at a company where ops is outsourced."

Michel Mayer, who was CEO of Freescale Semiconductor when it supplied Apple with microprocessors, has a slightly more positive take. "I'm not sure he'd be able to replace Steve's design creativity," Mayer says. "Then again, I could argue that it's not the role of the next CEO to do that."

Mayer is clearly onto something. So Cook would need some help with design and marketing. What CEO doesn't have a gap or at least a soft spot in the résumé? "If Tim were to be CEO of Apple, he'd need to have different people around him to make up for his weaknesses, just as Steve has Tim around to make up for his," says John Thompson, vice chairman of search firm Heidrick & Struggles, who placed Cook at Apple in 1998.

Another factor that would help Cook - or any successor, frankly - is that Jobs has been on such a creative tear: It's well known that Apple maintains a top-secret pipeline of products it intends to roll out in the next few years. Were Jobs no longer around, Apple could live off those products for some time.

It's not as if Cook is ignorant about products and marketing; he's getting an education in those fields at Nike. John Connors, a fellow Nike director, says Cook contributes to the Nike board on e-commerce initiatives and the "customer experience" in Nike's stores - as well as in overall perceptiveness. "Almost invariably he'll have an insight where, after he shares it with you, you'll say, 'Huh, why didn't I think of that?'" he says. Connors, a Seattle venture capitalist and a former chief financial officer of Microsoft, calls Cook the "General Petraeus of the corporate world," the "kind of guy who lets his results speak for themselves."

Cook has been known to express awe that he has been exposed to two iconic founders, the other being Nike's Phil Knight. "The Nike thing is a privilege," Cook has said. "When I walk on the campuses of both companies I have a shiver that goes up my spine."

As for how Cook deals with Jobs, there is evidence that the No. 2 executive is able to ignore his goose bumps long enough to negotiate well for himself. Cook gets more leeway than any other Apple executive. (Apple declined numerous requests to make Jobs, Cook, or any of Apple's board members available for this article.)

In October 2005, when Jobs named him COO, he noted that Cook "has been doing this job for over two years," so it made sense to recognize him with a promotion. The next month, Cook became a Nike director, a move Jobs approved. No other member of the Apple management team - other than Jobs, who is Disney's largest shareholder and a director - is on the board of any outside company.

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