Apple CEO Tim Cook Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Apple Executive Bench Is Deep as CEO Succession Question Raised

CEO Tim Cook: “I see my role as CEO to prepare as many people as I can to be CEO and that’s what I’m doing and then the board makes a decision at that point in time.”

Apple Inc. CEO Tim Cook addressed succession at the company’s annual shareholder meeting on Tuesday, saying that eventually “passing the baton” properly is one of his most important roles.

The company has a deep bench of experienced managers who could fill Cook’s shoes when the time comes. Apple’s leadership team includes 10 executives other than Cook and features veterans like operations chief Jeff Williams, services head Eddy Cue, product marketing boss Phil Schiller, and hardware leader Dan Riccio. There are also relative newcomers, like CFO Luca Maestri and retail head Angela Ahrendts, who brought leadership experience from other companies.

At the meeting in Cupertino, California, Cook said every Apple board meeting in recent years has had succession planning on the agenda for all key executive roles, but he didn’t specify any potential successors. Cook, 57, has been CEO since succeeding Steve Jobs in 2011. He’s led an explosion in revenue and profit, while expanding services like music streaming and overseeing the launch of the Apple Watch, iPhone X and HomePod.

There’s no reason to believe Cook is planning to step down any time soon. And given how far off his departure may be, it’s possible a successor isn’t even on the executive team yet. But Cook’s comments marked a new level of specificity on the topic. Apple declined to comment beyond the CEO’s remarks.

Apple Inc. (7)

Who will succeed Apple CEO Tim Cook? Perhaps, clockwise from top left, COO Jeff Williams, marketing SVP Phil Schiller, hardware engineering SVP Dan Riccio, CFO Luca Maestri, internet software and services SVP Eddy Cue or retail SVP Angela Ahrendts.

Apple COO Williams would probably be Cook’s most likely successor if the CEO were to step down in the immediate future. Williams, who like Cook is an operations maestro, manages the company’s global supply chain, which churns out the iPhones, iPads, and Macs that generate the majority of Apple’s revenue. He’s also taken on a more public profile in recent years by managing the Apple Watch’s development and announcing new health features at press conferences.  

Ahrendts, who came to Apple in 2014 to run its retail division, was formerly the CEO of Burberry Group Plc where she engineered a turnaround of the luxury goods maker. She has been discussed as a potential successor to Cook because of her experience and ability to connect with employees and customers.

“Fake news, fake news, silly, no,” Ahrendts said to BuzzFeed News when asked about succession last year. Still, she would instantly become one of the most powerful women in the business world as the leader of the most-valuable public company. Apple is trying to increase diversity, and naming Ahrendts as CEO would shake up a technology industry criticized for its male-dominated culture.

Another possibility would be Craig Federighi, Apple’s top software executive. He oversees the software running on iPhones, iPads, Macs, and Siri, and has quickly become one of the most public facing and important leaders at the company. He has the ear of Apple developers and runs a complex organization of thousands of software engineers working on future iPhone features.

“I see my role as CEO to prepare as many people as I can to be CEO and that’s what I’m doing and then the board makes a decision at that point in time,” Cook said in the same BuzzFeed interview as Ahrendts.

At the shareholder meeting on Tuesday, Cook was also asked about the eventual succession of Chief Design Officer Jony Ive. Cook didn’t comment on specific executives. In 2015, Ive shifted management responsibilities to a pair of design vice presidents, Alan Dye and Richard Howarth, while he focused on the design of the company’s new Apple Park campus. In December, Ive regained his management duties.

By Mark Gurman

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