Can Tim Cook Keep Apple Afloat In Steve Jobs’ Absence?

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Apple’s announcement that CEO Steve Jobs will be taking a medical leave of absence has left many wondering about the company’s future.

Jobs maintains that he’ll “continue as CEO and be involved in major strategic decisions for the company,” but has handed day to day operations over to Apple COO Tim Cook. That’s not really saying much, though, because as COO, Cook is already responsible for Apple’s day to day operations.

(MORE: Who Is Tim Cook and Can He Truly Replace Steve Jobs?)

This isn’t the first time Jobs has taken medical leave, but unlike the six-month hiatus he took in 2009, this one’s open-ended. In Jobs’ e-mail to Apple employees, he went so far as to say, “I have great confidence that Tim and the rest of the executive management team will do a terrific job executing the exciting plans we have in place for 2011.”

This also isn’t the first time that Tim Cook has filled in for Jobs. He filled in as CEO during Jobs’ absence in 2009 when Jobs underwent a liver transplant, and he filled in for a couple months in 2004 after Jobs had surgery to treat pancreatic cancer.

Who is Tim Cook?

Cook joined Apple in 1998 “to streamline the company’s jumbled manufacturing and distribution operations,” according to a prior TIME profile. He spent a brief six months as a VP at Compaq before joining Apple, with 12 years under his belt at IBM before that. (More on Apple’s Hits and Misses So Far)

Like Jobs, Cook takes $1 in yearly salary. He reportedly received a $5 million bonus last year as a thank-you for filling in for Jobs during 2009, plus another $52.3 million in stock. Cook also sits on the board at Nike.

Cook is believed by many to eventually be Jobs’ successor based on his past experience with filling in during Jobs’ medical leaves, and the fact that he’s been handling day to day operations at Apple since 2005.

An Apple GM told Wired in 2009:

“Tim runs Apple, and he has been running Apple for a long time now. Steve is the face of the company and very involved with product development but Tim is the guy who takes all those designs and turns it into a big pile of cash.”

Even so, the big question on everyone’s mind still looms: Can Tim Cook (or anyone, for that matter) actually replace Steve Jobs? In Cook’s own words during an interview with Fortune in 2008, “No. He’s irreplaceable.”

Perhaps the more important question on everyone’s mind should be: Does Steve Jobs need to be replaced for Apple to survive?

Stock Timeline During Jobs’ Absences

If we examine what’s happened to Apple’s stock whenever Steve Jobs has taken a leave of absence, a pattern begins to emerge.

In 2004: Cook filled in for Jobs in August and September. On August 6, 2004, Apple’s stock was trading at $14.89 per share—its lowest level in months. By October 8, 2004, the stock was trading at $19.53 per share. By the end of the year, with Jobs back, the stock was at $32.20 per share.

In 2009: Cook filled in for Jobs from mid-January until the end of June. On January 16, 2009, Apple’s stock was again at its lowest level in months: $82.33 per share. By July 2, 2009, the stock was trading at $140.02 per share. Apple finished out the year at $210.73 per share.

So Steve Jobs appears to have a positive affect on Apple stock while he’s in charge (or when he comes back from a leave of absence) and a negative affect on the stock when he initially goes on a leave of absence. (More on 10 Mac Store Apps To Get You Started)

However, both times that Cook has filled in for Jobs, Apple’s stock has gone up. Perhaps not as astronomically as when Jobs is in the driver’s seat, but up nonetheless. It could be argued that if Jobs were to leave Apple altogether, the company may not grow as outrageously as it has in the past. But it’s very unlikely that the company would crash and burn.

Jobs’ Supporting Cast

Though Steve Jobs’ presence at Apple is certainly a nice intangible, his executive team is stocked with talented individuals. COO Tim Cook already runs day to day operations smoothly, Jonathan Ive is the SVP of Industrial Design and is responsible for the look and feel of most of Apple’s products, Ron Johnson runs the wildly successful retail stores, and Phil Schiller is the force behind Apple’s marketing efforts.

Steve Jobs may be the big picture guy, but his executive team very likely shares his vision and is instrumental in Apple’s success over the past decade. Jobs brings a world of intangibles to the table that would otherwise be impossible to replace, but it’s unlikely that Apple’s going to lose its positioning in the near future.

The long term future of Apple is harder to predict, of course, but the company will eventually have to deal with Steve Jobs leaving in one capacity or another. Since his return to Apple in 1996, though, Jobs has built a strong foundation and provided a clear vision for the company. He may be the face of Apple, but his legacy and influence will likely permeate much of what goes on at One Infinite Loop whether he’s there or not.

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