Tim Cook: the man who filled Steve Jobs’ shoes at Apple

No one expected much from Tim Cook when he took over the top job on the Apple founder’s death. But he has quietly led the firm to extraordinary new heights.

Tim Cook, Apple CEO
(Image credit: © Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Tim Cook marked the new year on his Twitter feed with tributes to the inspiring leadership examples set by the late Desmond Tutu and Sidney Poitier. He didn’t mention his own big news – that, under his watch, Apple had scored the remarkable achievement of becoming the world’s first $3trn company, having tripled in value in just three years. The iPhone-maker’s annual revenues now exceed the GDP of most countries. Perhaps it was politic to avoid highlighting this though – thanks to stock awards, his own pay shot up by a whopping 569% to $98.7m last year. As Statista notes, the self-effacing Apple boss now outearns the company’s “regular workers” (whose median compensation was $68,254 in 2021) by a “staggering” ratio of 1,447 to 1.

How Tim Cook transformed Apple

The figures are all the more remarkable given the “pervasive” scepticism surrounding Cook’s elevation to the top job a decade ago, following the illness and death of Apple’s visionary founder, Steve Jobs, says the Financial Times. Back then, rivals such as Oracle’s pugnacious boss, Larry Ellison, claimed it was “inevitable that the company would struggle” under Cook, who was dismissed as an effective, but uninspiring chief operating officer lacking the genius of his predecessor. “Few predictions have ever been so wrong.”

Critics argue that the enigmatic Cook has merely built on Jobs’ legacy, aided by a “decade of easy-money policies, big shifts into mobile and the emergence of cloud computing”. But that overlooks the qualities he has brought – “from supply-chain expertise” to his “savvy” navigation of trading currents. Tech news site The Information recently suggested that Apple is so reliant on its boss’s diplomatic skills in international negotiations (particularly with tricky customers such as China) that it could face difficulties when he stands down.

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Cook has taken plenty of flak for failing to produce a “magic” product moment, yet his two major innovations, AirPodsand the Apple Watch, have actually proved big successes, says the FT. That may be beside the point. Supportersclaim his most important contribution has been the transformation of an inherently “volatile” product-based company into a services juggernaut, eking out every penny from “the Apple ecosystem”. Above all, he has brought “consistency”.

Born in 1960, and raised in Robertsdale, Alabama, Cook always stood out as a likeable, “reliable kid”, says the local news site AL.com. “He was just the kind of person you liked to be around,” observed his maths teacher. Cook went on to study industrial engineering at Auburn University, later taking an MBA at Duke. After working at IBM, Intelligent Electronics and Compaq, he moved to Apple in 1998. His first meeting with staff on arrival set the tone, says The Wall Street Journal – it “lasted 11 hours”. Team members still call Fridays “date night with Tim”, because meetings tend to stretch hours into the evening.

A humble workaholic

With his “homely drawl” and “approachable demeanour”, the Apple boss appears “affable”, says The Times. Yet he can sometimes be just as fearsome as Jobs. He habitually rises at 4am and is all over the detail of Apple’s operations – woe betide anyone who arrives in a meeting unprepared. “Devotion to privacy” has always been a big theme for Cook, both professionally (he enjoys “tweaking Mark Zuckerberg’s tail” about Facebook’s harvesting of personal data) and in private life, says The Sunday Times. Colleagues and acquaintances describe him as “a humble workaholic with a singular commitment to Apple”, says The Wall Street Journal. It has certainly proved a fruitful marriage.

Jane writes profiles for MoneyWeek and is city editor of The Week. A former British Society of Magazine Editors editor of the year, she cut her teeth in journalism editing The Daily Telegraph’s Letters page and writing gossip for the London Evening Standard – while contributing to a kaleidoscopic range of business magazines including Personnel Today, Edge, Microscope, Computing, PC Business World, and Business & Finance.

She has edited corporate publications for accountants BDO, business psychologists YSC Consulting, and the law firm Stephenson Harwood – also enjoying a stint as a researcher for the due diligence department of a global risk advisory firm.

Her sole book to date, Stay or Go? (2016), rehearsed the arguments on both sides of the EU referendum.

She lives in north London, has a degree in modern history from Trinity College, Oxford, and is currently learning to play the drums.