For the last couple of years the question of who will succeed Steve Jobs as the boss of Apple has been a thorn in the company’s side. It is as if they do not want to publicly acknowledge that there will be a day when their iconic leader will not be at the helm in some shape or form.
The issue will be front and centre when shareholders gather at the firm’s Cupertino HQ in California for the annual boondoggle today amid Mr Jobs’ third medical leave of absence.
Leading the charge to have this extremely secretive Silicon Valley stalwart talk about succession plans is the Central Laborers’ Pension Fund of Jackson, Illinois which holds nearly 11,500 Apple shares worth around $4m.
Given that Mr Jobs is seen as so central to the success of Apple, it doesn’t seem unreasonable that the Fund wants to protect the investment it has made on behalf of its members, who work mainly in the construction industry. Especially given that this time around, Mr Jobs and Apple has said little about his actual state of health and how long he will be on leave for.
The resolution put forward by the Fund calls on Apple’s board to adopt and disclose a written “succession planning policy”. Under such a policy, the board would review its succession plan every year, maintain an emergency succession plan and “identify and develop internal candidates”.
This isn’t a case of trying to drive Mr Jobs out of the position as he deals with his latest health issues said the Fund’s corporate governance chief Jennifer O’Dell.
“The last thing we want is for Steve Jobs to step down. His is the classic American success story, coming from nothing to run the second-largest company in the country. We would like him to be there forever, but that is not realistic.”
Apple is not best pleased at the move and in its written response in its proxy statement has said “by publicly naming these potential successors, Proposal No. 5 invites competitors to recruit high-value executives away from Apple.”
In other words, take a hike, we will keep as tight lipped as we always have on the subject.
The issue of “high-value executives” being enticed from Apple is such a red herring as to be laughable because it has so far not happened during any of the times Mr Jobs has temporarily stepped down.
Of course we know that even though he was busy dealing with pancreatic cancer in 2004, a liver transplant in 2009 and other issues today, he has remained in charge on the big issues working from home. He was reportedly spotted on the Apple campus over the last few weeks, looking frail and thin but nevertheless keeping an eye on the company he founded along with Steve Wozniak.
Over the last few years while I have been covering Apple and this issue, analyst after analyst has cited Apple’s “deep management bench” as being well capable of looking after the mother ship while Steve is not there on a daily basis.
They have also underlined how dedicated those top execs are to the Apple cause and to Mr Jobs from Phil Schiller the senior vice president of worldwide product marketing, to Scott Forstall in charge of software for the iPhone and from Jonny Ive senior VP of industrial design to of course Tim Cook, the chief operating officer and the man who has stepped into the breach and taken over from Mr Jobs.
It could also be argued that what really does the Laborers’ Fund need to know when for the third time in a row, Apple has survived and thrived during Mr Jobs’ illness and that the team looking after the shop is so seasoned and skilled at the job in hand. Apple shares dipped in the days following Mr Jobs’ most recent announcement to take time off. They have since recovered and hit an all time high this week at $363.13.
“Of all the years to have this discussion, this is the year,” said the Fund’s Ms O’Dell.
“We need to have a plan in place because we are long-term investors. We are going to be here for the long haul.”
And that is the issue, no one knows how long Mr Jobs will be around given his ongoing medical problems. All the analysts agree that Apple will do well in the short term. The big question is the long term.
Take last year’s launch of the iPad, which to date has sold over 15m. The tablet computer was not an Apple invention, but they did reignite the category and turned it into the big computing story of last year and this year.
The same with the iPhone which changed the way people use phones and the iPod and iTunes which changed the way people consume music.
Will they continue having such huge successes without Mr Jobs? That is a question no-one can answer at this stage.
On the smaller issue of the iPad, its successor is due out next month. The blogosphere is alight with “news” that Apple will take the wraps off the iPad 2 on 2 March in San Francisco.
Will Mr Jobs be there? He made it to dinner with President Obama last week when he came to town to speak to a number of leading Valley CEO’s.
My betting is yes because simply put Mr Jobs is a showman who loves what he does, loves his company, loves his products and would love to cock a snook at those who have counted him out of the game.