A Peek into the Life of Tim Cook, the Most Private CEO Ever

UPDATED: October 30, 2014
PUBLISHED: October 30, 2014

On paper, it made no sense—not for a guy like Tim Cook. An industrial engineer by training, he’s notoriously analytical. If given the choice, he’d gladly spend whole days sifting through spreadsheets, eyeballing the figures, searching for the trouble spots. Beneath the warm smile and the soft Southern drawl lies the heart of a fierce negotiator.

But, like so many others, he was powerless to resist the aura of Steve Jobs, the vaunted reality-distortion field unleashed by the visionary computer salesman. Despite the leery counsel of his confidants, the lopsided list of pros and cons, the then-37-year-old executive found himself accepting a job at Apple in the troubled days of 1998.

“I listened to my intuition, not the left side of my brain or, for that matter, even the people who knew me best,” he later said. “It’s hard to know why I listened. I’m not even sure I know today. But no more than five minutes into my initial interview with Steve, I wanted to throw caution and logic to the wind and join Apple.

“People said, ‘You’re crazy. You’re working for the top PC company in the world. How could you even think of doing this?’” Cook added. “And yet that voice said, Go west, young man. Go west. And sometimes you just have to go for it.”

By now this story is an integral part of Cook’s lore. In the 16 years since, he has distinguished himself as a brilliant operations manager and an esteemed member of Jobs’ inner circle. As Apple CEO, he has deftly steered the organization through the dark period after Jobs’ death and exceeded Wall Street expectations nearly every step of the way. Today Apple ranks among the most valuable companies in history. When Cook joined the team as vice president of operations, though, it was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Months earlier, at a tech symposium, someone had asked Michael Dell, founder of Dell Computers, what he would do to fix the firm. “I’d shut it down and give the money back to the shareholders,” he replied.

Against his better judgment, Cook quit his job as vice president of corporate materials for Compaq, the largest computer company on the planet, and joined the group tasked with turning Apple around. He provided the materials and the machinery that Jobs and his design wizard Jony Ive would use to change the world.

“Tim was essentially in charge of making sure they got the quality they wanted, in the quantities they wanted, in the time they wanted,” says former Wall Street Journal reporter Yukari Iwatani Kane. “Whatever Steve asked for, Tim made it happen.”

Cook was every bit as demanding as Jobs. A tireless worker, he scheduled staff phone calls on Sunday nights to get a jump on the week ahead. Team members prepared for his weekly operations meetings as if they were final exams—and their boss did indeed grill them for hours on end. In Cook’s book, failing to anticipate his questions and have the correct answers ready was a cardinal sin.

He scrutinized every step in the operations process. After shuttering Apple’s last few factories, he assembled a network of contract manufacturers and suppliers across Asia, reducing the company’s costly, time-sensitive inventory from 90 days’ worth of product to what was essentially made-to-order production. According to researchers from Gartner Inc., the entire inventory now turns over once every five days.

What’s more, Cook accurately predicted the demand for all those music players and cellphones and locked up—for years on end—the cutting-edge tech that made them so irresistible. At the height of the iPad craze, his supply lines were nimble enough to churn out 15 million tablets or more in a span of nine months.

In an unforgiving industry, a field where one small slip-up can wipe out a year’s worth of profits, Cook’s pipeline remains a model of efficiency. His contribution to Apple’s staggering success is beyond dispute. Within a year of his hiring, the company was back in the black. Today it logs more than $170 billion in annual revenue.

For Apple’s devoted fans, however, efficiency is nothing to brag about. They want magic, the kind Jobs conjured with freakish regularity. Without the creative genius of Apple’s legendary founder, they wonder, where will the sparks come from? Who will provide the innovative leadership that led to the iPod, iPhone and iPad?

For Cook, who is in many ways the anti-thesis of Jobs—calm, cool and collected where the hot-tempered, rabble-rousing inventor was not—that’s the big question. Is he prepared to answer it? We’ll soon know.


He was just a boy, out for a spin on a brand-new 10-speed bicycle, when he saw the flames, smelled the smoke and observed the wooden cross burning on the front lawn of a neighbor’s house. The men gathered around it were cloaked in white robes and hoods. “Stop!” he shouted. A man in the crowd raised his hood, and Tim—before he sped off—recognized him as a local church deacon. “This image was permanently imprinted in my brain, and it would change my life forever,” Cook told an audience at the United Nations, where he accepted a lifetime achievement award from Auburn University last December.

This is another pillar in the CEO’s legend. An intensely private man, he carefully guards the details of his personal life, which is why he created such a stir when he recently revealed in a 10-paragraph statement that he is gay. He almost never speaks to the media. What little information he has shared comes from public speeches, tech conference talks and chats with college students. This much we know: Cook was raised in the football-loving, churchgoing farm town of Robertsdale, Ala., a 23-mile drive from the state’s Gulf Coast. He played trombone in the band, worked on the high school yearbook (as the business manager, of course) and graduated second in his class at Robertsdale High. His father, Donald, labored as a foreman in a shipyard. His mother, Geraldine, worked in a pharmacy when she wasn’t chasing after the couple’s three sons. Tim was the middle boy.

In 1978 Cook moved 220 miles north to the campus of Auburn University, where he was discovered four years later by an IBM recruiter. “From the day he hit the business world, fresh out of school, he was recognized as a high performer,” says Dick Daugherty, who oversaw IBM’s Research Triangle Park in North Carolina. Cook was intense, methodical and driven. He once volunteered to work through the holidays to help the division meet its production goals. Despite his youth, he was capable of handling tough tasks. “He took a project on, and you could take it to the bank,” Daugherty says. “He was going to get it done.”

During his 12 years at the company, Cook mastered the intricacies of operations and worked his way up through the ranks to become the director of fulfillment for North America. In the evenings, he went to school at Duke to earn an MBA. By all accounts, he was well-liked, though something of a loner.

“He didn’t hesitate to speak up on an issue, and he didn’t hesitate to let somebody in a higher position know he thought they were wrong,” Daugherty says. “But he certainly wasn’t a beat-your-chest guy.”

Cook eventually left IBM to work for the computer reseller Intelligent Electronics in Colorado and then, for six months, Compaq in Houston. At each stop he went about his business without revealing many details about his personal life other than his ardent love for Auburn football. Kane looked into his life story for her book Haunted Empire: Apple After Steve Jobs. She conducted more than 200 interviews in the two years she spent researching the narrative. She even went to visit Cook’s hometown. Yet she says the man is still a mystery to her. “People who have worked side by side with him for years—over a decade—don’t feel like they know him,” Kane says. “He’s cordial, polite and respectful when you meet him. But nobody seems to know who he is.”

He wakes each day at 3:45 a.m. He’s an avid cyclist and rock climber. He powers through the day with protein bars and Mountain Dew. On the walls of his office, he has photos of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.—men who sacrificed their lives for the greater good.

Beyond that, Cook has divulged very little. Unlike those two civil rights giants, he prefers to lead not with words, but with actions. When all is said and done, he holds himself to a higher standard than the one he creates for his employees. Among Cook’s most cherished quotes is this John F. Kennedy favorite: “For of those to whom much is given, much is required.”


What’s Tim Cook the CEO like?

It’s hard to say.

He has revealed so little about himself in his (as of Nov. 1) 54 years of life that most people, beyond his parents and presumably his brothers, have no idea what to make of him. Cook lives on his own, vacations on his own and rarely ventures beyond the Apple campus with his colleagues. As far as his office mates know, he has no close friends. In a company known for ruthlessly guarding its secrets, Cook stands out for being exceedingly guarded.

In recent months, however, he has begun to offer clues about his management philosophy and plans. In public statements, he has stressed the importance of hard work, preparation and focus, saying, “You can only do so many things great, and you should cast aside everything else.” Cook also talks of doing what’s right instead of what’s merely profitable. “Even though I’m an engineer and an analytical person at heart, the most important decisions I made had nothing to do with that,” he told students at Duke’s Fuqua Business School in the spring of 2013. “They were always based on intuition.”

Cook seems to understand that people are now looking to him for the vision so skillfully provided by Jobs. And, truth be told, he speaks with passion and eloquence about the culture of excellence he inherited. “I found at Apple a company that deeply believed in advancing humanity through its products and through the equality of all of its employees,” he noted in his U.N. speech.

In the early days of his tenure as CEO, back when Jobs’ passing was still fresh in everyone’s minds, Cook took pains to forge a peace with the company’s investors and employees. He bought back $90 billion worth of stock and started paying quarterly dividends. He promoted one of Jobs’ loyal lieutenants, the highly popular Internet services manager Eddy Cue, to senior vice president. He agreed to match the charitable contributions of Apple’s staff members. And he ventured down to the cafeteria at lunchtime to meet and talk with his co-workers—as opposed to Jobs, who dined with Ive almost every day.

Unlike Jobs, Cook cheerfully shares the spotlight with Ive and other Apple executives. In an uncharacteristic display of frankness, he has openly expressed his support for environmental issues, immigration reform and gay rights.

In the last year, he has begun to unveil his strategy for the company, too. He shored up retail efforts by hiring Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts as senior vice president of Apple’s retail and online stores. He paid $3 billion for the headphones maker Beats, which brought the music-streaming expertise of Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine into the Apple fold. And he partnered with IBM to develop a line of business software apps exclusively for iPads and iPhones.

When Kane wrote her book, the soft-spoken CEO was essentially serving as the keeper of the flame. “He was caught in the middle, in a no man’s land, where he was expected to do what he thought was right but also preserve Steve’s legacy,” she says. “And he was literally haunted by Steve’s ghost, I think. But the last couple of months, it’s been interesting because he started making moves that Steve would not have—in any universe. He’s finally being the best Tim Cook he can be.”

In essence, the moves he’s made are purely strategic, the sort of chess plays that Jobs had little patience for. What remains to be seen is whether Cook can bring the sizzle, the epic product launches that made Jobs an icon for the ages. Cook insists Apple’s pixie dust never sprang from the hand of one man. It came instead from the creative spirit woven into the company’s DNA. It was a byproduct of the intricate dance between the members of Apple’s hardware, software and services teams. “The magic happens where those three come together,” he once said. “So it’s unlikely that somebody that’s focused on one of those things in and of itself can come up with magic.”

For what it’s worth, Ive backs up that claim. “Innovation at Apple has always been a team game,” he told The New York Times in June. “It has always been a case where you have a number of small groups working together.

“Steve established a set of values, and he established preoccupations and tones that are completely enduring—and he established those principles with a small team of people,” Ive added. “I’ve been ridiculously lucky to be part of it. But Tim was very much part of that team.”

Ultimately, though, the furor won’t die down until Apple comes out with another life-changing product, until it transforms, say, the television experience the way it has transformed the personal computer, the music player and the cellphone. The company appears to be working on a smartwatch—one outfitted with sensors to monitor your fitness and health—but it’s hard to imagine that the device would have such a sweeping impact. Then again, who but Jobs & Co. could have predicted the popularity of the iPad?

Find out 5 ways Tim Cook is better than Steve Jobs.

Chris Raymond is a contributing editor for SUCCESS magazine.