On a sleek white coffee table in Apple CEO Tim Cook’s fourth-floor office in late July, beneath framed posters of Robert F. Kennedy, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Jackie Robinson, a rose-gold iPhone 6s sits in its original box. Earlier that morning, Cook had stood in front of employees at Apple headquarters and held up the phone, which a staffer had hand-delivered from a store in Beijing to commemorate a notable occasion: Apple had sold its billionth iPhone.
That celebratory milestone – Cook laughs when asked by a reporter if he’ll stop counting, as McDonald’s did with its hamburgers – aptly coincides with another big moment for the technology giant’s chief executive. A few weeks later, Cook would mark the fifth anniversary of what has been the most closely watched transition of power in corporate history: On Aug. 24, 2011, just six weeks before his death, Apple’s iconic founder, Steve Jobs, permanently handed his chief operating officer the reins. “It’s been a blur in a lot of ways,” says Cook, who had filled in for Jobs during medical leaves. “It feels like it was yesterday in some respects.”
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It is fitting that these two milestones arrive so close together. That’s because the iPhone, launched by Jobs, has been the biggest driver of Apple’s massive growth during Cook’s tenure. It led the company to soaring valuations and accounted for nearly two-thirds of Apple’s revenue in the past year. Just the tally on iPhone sales, almost $141 billion over the past four quarters, is more than the annual sales figures of Cisco, Disney and Nike – combined.
But the iPhone has been a source of recent disappointment, too. In its most recent quarter, iPhone sales fell 23 percent from a year ago, contributing to a 14.6 percent drop in overall revenue. It was Apple’s second consecutive quarterly drop in sales after 13 years of growth.
Just after Apple disclosed those results, Cook sat down with The Washington Post to discuss his first five years in one of corporate America’s most glaring spotlights. In two sprawling and self-reflective interviews – one in his office and another by phone just before he left for vacation in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks – Cook described why the visibility of the job has been “shocking,” how he’s learned to deal with the scrutiny, and who he’s turned to for advice at pivotal moments (Warren Buffett, on his decision to return cash to shareholders, and Anderson Cooper about publicly disclosing he is gay).
He spoke in candid terms about the mistakes he’s made on the way, such as his first hire to run Apple’s retail stores (“that was clearly a screw-up”). He fiercely defended Apple’s tax policies. He touched on succession planning and the importance of grooming internal candidates. He was at his most spirited when talking about privacy and the long-term future of Apple and the iPhone – calling Apple’s big presence in the smartphone industry “a privilege, not a problem” – and quieted considerably when talking about Jobs’s memory. “I know this sounds probably bizarre at this point,” he said, “but I had convinced myself that he would bounce.”
Cook, 55, chooses his words carefully, taking long pauses and speaking with a slight Alabama drawl. Though he has favorite phrases – many things are “deep,” and Apple’s mission is always its “North Star” – he eschews the jargon many CEOs use. And while he’s quick to trumpet Apple, he is also unassuming, quickly noting, after saying his job can be “lonely,” that “I’m not looking for any sympathy. CEOs don’t need any sympathy.”