Tim Cook’s record-crushing tenure as Apple CEO is the most under-appreciated story in business

Key Points
  • It's been a monumental few months for Apple, with the release of the iPhone X, iPhone 8, iPhone 8 Plus, a new Watch, a new Apple TV, new Macs, and the forthcoming HomePod.
  • Apple's market capitalization — the value ascribed to a company by investors — has inched toward a trillion dollars this year.
  • But Apple's understated CEO, Tim Cook, is rarely discussed with the idolatry of his predecessor, Steve Jobs.
Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks at a conference in Laguna Beach, Calif., October 27, 2014.
Lucy Nicholson | Reuters

It's been a monumental few months for Apple, with the release of the iPhone X -- the biggest redesign of Apple's most important product since it launched in 2007 -- plus the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus, a new Apple Watch with cellular connectivity, a new Apple TV, new Macs, and the forthcoming HomePod "smart" speaker.

All of these products were hatched under the watch of Apple's understated CEO, Tim Cook. But Cook, who took over in August 2011 after a couple of interim-CEO stints, has not inspired the same level of devotion as his predecessor, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.

Jobs did bring Apple back from the brink of bankruptcy to turn it into the most valuable company in the world. But Cook's job in some ways is harder. Jobs was starting almost from zero. Cook has to maintain Apple's growth from an absolutely massive revenue and profit base, while answering critics who long for another world-changing product like the iPhone turned out to be.

An Alabama native with both business and engineering degrees, Cook spent 12 years at IBM in its heyday and is known as a tough negotiator with strong senses of discipline and integrity who relies on both logic and intuition to make decisions. In his biography, Jobs said he and Cook "wanted the same thing" and had "the same vision" for Apple at a high strategic level.

So how's he doing?

By the numbers

Apple's market capitalization — the value ascribed to a company by investors — has more than doubled under Cook's tenure and is inching toward a trillion dollars this year, cementing Apple's place as the world's most valuable public company.

Investors have had a very profitable ride:

Profit and revenue have been on a steady upward trend:

Apple has also amassed a mind-boggling hoard of cash over the past six years.

Though Jobs is lauded as a product visionary, Cook has turned Apple's flagship product -- the iPhone -- into the most successful tech product in history, continuing to grow sales.

If there was any doubt before he took over, there's none now: Apple is the iPhone company:

Apple's only major new product line under Cook has been the Apple Watch, which has not yet turned into a massive hit like the iPod or iPhone. But Cook is investing in the future: the company's research and development budget has exploded under Cook, fueling new areas of growth like chips, augmented reality and autonomous systems.

Apple has also invested in new product lines like Beats, Apple Music and Apple Watch — and revenue from those ancillary products has about doubled under Cook.

The company is looking toward new markets like China as well.

"We increased market share for iPhone, Mac and iPad during the quarter. We hit all-time revenue records for services for the PRC during the quarter, we had very strong iPad revenue growth, we had double-digit unit growth in iPhone, and both the upgraders and Android switchers were up on a year-over-year basis during the quarter. So the results were broad-based — they were pretty much across the board," Cook said of China on a Thursday night conference call.

Despite his success, Cook says he is unphased by public opinion of his performance, even by those who say the company's best days are behind it.

"I probably, maybe, have a different view than you do or the folks that you're quoting," Cook told an analyst on a conference call earlier this month.

"There's always doubting Thomases out there. And I've been hearing those for the 20 years I've been here and suspect I'll hear about them until I retire, right? So I don't really listen to that too much. There's lots of fantastic people here and they're doing unbelievable things."