By John Gruber
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One thing became abundantly clear after analyzing Apple’s recent earnings report: Jeff Williams is doing a phenomenal job. As senior vice president of Operations, Williams is tasked with making sure the Apple machine is well-oiled and in tip-top shape, not only capable of producing more than 100 million iOS devices in a quarter, but building flexibility into the system to handle annual hardware updates that would make most hardware companies quiver with fear. I considered Jeff Williams as Tim Cook’s successor before Cook finished his first day as CEO, and I feel even more confident about that today. Regardless of what the future brings, people need to start watching Jeff Williams because he is executing at levels that few are able to achieve.
A few thoughts about this.
First, in terms of iPhone operations and considering nothing else, Jeff Williams has clearly done an amazing job. Apple sold a record 74 million iPhones last quarter, and though the company doesn’t break that down by models for competitive reasons, everyone knows that a huge chunk of those were the brand-new iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. They were supply-constrained on both models, particularly the 6 Plus, but only by a few weeks. Operationally Apple did an incredible job meeting demand for iPhones — they sold more than ever but were less supply-constrained than in the last few launch quarters. For context, in 2008, Apple sold a total 10 million iPhones for the entire year. All credit to the hardware, software, and product marketing teams for the fact that 74 million people wanted to buy an iPhone last quarter. But the credit goes to Williams’s operations team that there were 74 million units available to sell.
Second, iPhone manufacturing is not Williams’s only responsibility. He’s in charge of all operations, and company-wide, operations seems to be going as well or even better than they did while Tim Cook was COO alongside Steve Jobs. And, Williams is overseeing the team creating Apple Watch. No pressure there.
As for Williams being CEO material: I have no doubt he’d be considered, but at this point any CEO succession planning on Apple’s part is in the context of an emergency. They should be prepared, and I’d bet they are, but Tim Cook is only 53 years old (Williams is 50) and isn’t going anywhere. I don’t think Apple would even look outside the company. There is an Apple Way of doing things — codified, documented, and taught to employees as they move into management through the company’s Joel Podolny-led Apple University. The company attributes its profound success over the last 15 years to the Apple Way — and rightly so, I say. I doubt Apple’s board would consider an outsider as CEO until and unless the company falters significantly and loses its way.
In the meantime, I’d guess that the current short list of Cook successors would consist of (in alphabetical order) Eddy Cue, Jony Ive, Phil Schiller, and Williams. All of them long-time Apple leaders. (After a few more years, Angela Ahrendts would certainly be considered. But at this point she’s still too new to the company.) I think Ive is the least likely of the bunch to want the job, but he certainly has the respect within the company.
Again, this whole exercise is highly speculative. I expect Tim Cook to remain at the helm for the next 15 years, maybe longer. I think he loves leading Apple, and, you know, he seems to be doing an OK job of it. What makes this speculation fun is that at the moment, at least from our perspective outside the company, there is no clear Number Two being groomed.
While we’re speculating, it’s worth noting that if Cook does remain CEO for the next decade or longer, by that point, the rest of Apple’s current senior leadership team will be in their 60s and fabulously wealthy. So if for some reason Tim Cook needs to be replaced in the next few years, his replacement will almost certainly be someone already on Apple’s leadership team. But a replacement who isn’t named until Tim Cook’s retirement in, say, 2030, will likely be someone we don’t yet know — someone who’ll rise through the company’s ranks between now and then.