What’s up with Apple CEO Tim Cook? The normally low-key 52-year-old operational wizard, who assumed command of Apple last year following the death of Steve Jobs, has been on something on a publicity tour this week, with a cover story in Bloomberg BusinessWeek and an appearance Thursday night on Rock Center with Brian Williams.
Cook’s media blitz comes at a critical time for Apple, as the company is navigating what will surely be the biggest holiday sales season in its history. Apple is also facing renewed Wall Street scrutiny over the fact that its stock price has fallen by more than 20% over the last three months. Then there are the persistent questions about working conditions at massive Chinese factories run by Foxconn, where most of Apple’s gadgets are manufactured. Add an increasingly bitter patent fight with hardware giant Samsung — it’s widely viewed as a proxy fight against Apple’s arch-enemy Google — and it’s not hard to see why Cook would want to get out there and tell the Apple story from his perspective.
In his interview with Brian Williams, which aired Thursday night at 10 p.m. EST, Cook came across as he has in past public appearances: stiff and guarded, with a quiet intensity and seriousness that was punctuated only occasionally by forced smiles. By his own admission, Cook, a native of Robertsdale, Ala., who attended Auburn and Duke and worked his way up the Silicon Valley ranks before being hired by Jobs in 1998, is a “very private person.” It’s clear that he’s still getting used to his role in the public eye, as CEO of the world’s most valuable technology company. “This is kind of your television coming out,” Williams remarked toward the end of the interview.
The big headline from the interview was Cook’s disclosure that Apple, which has faced criticism for outsourcing much of the company’s manufacturing to China, plans to “do one of our existing Mac lines in the Unites States.” In the Bloomberg interview Cook said the company plans to spend $100 million on American manufacturing next year. “This doesn’t mean that Apple will do it ourselves, but we’ll be working with people, and we’ll be investing our money,” Cook told the magazine. Apple made over $50 billion in profit over the last 12 months.
Asked by Williams why Apple has moved so much of its manufacturing to China, Cook explained: “Over time, there are skills that are associated with manufacturing that have left the U.S. Not necessarily people, but the education system stopped producing them.”
Given the growing political desire to reinvigorate American manufacturing, it’s not surprising that Cook is focused on this issue, at least from a public relations point of view. And it also wasn’t surprising that on Thursday morning, just hours before Cook’s interview aired, Foxconn told Bloomberg that the company is looking for ways to expand its operations into North America. “We are looking at doing more manufacturing in the U.S. because, in general, customers want more to be done there,” Louis Woo, a Foxconn spokesman, told Bloomberg.
From the outset, Williams seemed enamored with the idea that Apple is some kind of new corporate species that is not subject to the normal creative destruction and boom and bust cycles that ultimately doom most companies. Pitched such a softball, Cook narrowed his eyes and reared back: “Don’t bet against us, Brian, don’t bet against us,” Apple’s CEO warned.
Williams did his best to address some of the pressing issues facing Apple at the moment, starting with Apple’s decision to yank Google Maps off the new iPhone 5 in favor of its own product. That move prompted a minor furor in the tech world because Apple’s map application suffered from serious problems, not least of all suggesting a rather unconventional route for crossing the Hoover Dam and depicting the Brooklyn Bridge as melting onto Pearl Street. “We screwed up and we are putting the weight of the company behind it,” Cook told Williams.
Cook also addressed the ongoing, high-profile patent litigation with Samsung, the world’s largest mobile phone maker. In August, Apple won a huge victory over Samsung when a San Jose federal jury found that the South Korea–based giant had infringed Apple’s smart-phone patents and awarded Apple $1.05 billion. (On Thursday, Samsung and Apple appeared for a hearing before U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh, who listened to arguments from both sides, before saying she would rule at a later date, according to CNBC.) In the interview with Williams, Cook reiterated the standard Apple line: “We love competition at Apple,” he said. “We think it makes us all better. But we want people to invent their own stuff.”
Williams ended the interview on a poignant note by asking Cook to recall how he felt last fall when Jobs, his mentor, passed away following a long and painful battle with cancer. “It was the saddest time of my life,” Cook said. “I always thought that he would bounce back, because he always did. It wasn’t until really close to the end that I intellectually realized that he wouldn’t bounce back this time.” Cook relayed a now familiar story about how, toward the end of his life, Jobs told him not to dwell on what he thought Jobs would do, but rather to “just do what’s right.”
And that’s really the bottom line with Cook: With that blessing from Jobs — his professional North Star for over a decade — Cook seems to feel like he now has the true authority to guide Apple as he sees fit. Already, Cook has started to make subtle but important changes at Apple. He’s moved aggressively to address critics about working conditions at Foxconn. He’s loosened Jobs-era limits on corporate philanthropy. And he’s initiated a new plan to issue a long-asked-for dividend to Apple shareholders.
For now, Apple remains on top, despite its stock swoon of the last few months. Some have suggested that Apple’s best days are behind it. But all actors in Apple’s orbit — from consumers to shareholders to employees to competitors — would be wise to heed Cook’s warning not to bet against the Cupertino, Calif.-based tech icon. The name on the CEO office may have changed, but the Apple story is far from over.