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How Apple's COO reached the top with an MBA

On January 17, 2011, Apple CEO Steve Jobs communicated to employees via e-mail that the technology company's board of directors had granted him a leave of absence so he could focus on his health. In the e-mail, Jobs informed employees that COO Tim Cook would take care of Apple's day-to-day operations. A Duke business school MBA and Auburn University industrial engineer, Cook already managed Apple's global operations and sales.

The leave of absence of Jobs--a pancreatic cancer survivor and liver transplant recipient--triggered a rash of news and speculation online, including the belief that Cook would ultimately succeed him.

"Working at Apple was never in any plan that I outlined for myself, but was without a doubt the best decision that I've ever made," Cook told graduates of Auburn University during a 2010 commencement speech.

"Prepare and your chance will come. If you're prepared when the right door opens, then it comes down to just one more thing, make sure that your execution lives up to your preparation."

Cook prepared by pursuing a solid education and gaining valuable work experience. He then made sure he executed.

MBA programs: why business school graduates succeed

Peter Misek, an analyst at Jefferies & Co. described Cook as "a star" in a January 2011 interview with Bloomberg. "He's arguably one of the best supply chain managers in the world, if you look at working capital management, cash-flow management, cash conversion cycles--all those great metrics," says Misek.

In a January 2011 article for Business Insider, writer Dan Frommer lists the qualities that should allow Cook and others like him to succeed.

  • Thorough understanding of company mission and operations
  • Hard work and competitive spirit when it comes to brand development
  • Earnings call and public appearance experience

Besides Apple, companies such as IBM have reportedly considered Cook as a likely candidate for a CEO position, according to Business Insider.

MBA programs: the road from Duke University's business school to Apple

Cook's journey started in 1982 when he obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in industrial engineering from Auburn University. Duke business school designated him a Fuqua Scholar when he graduated among the top 10 percent of its 1988 class.

Cook spent 12 years at IBM, becoming director of North American fulfillment. In that position, he supervised manufacturing and distribution activities in North and Latin America at IBM's Personal Computer Company.

After IBM, Cook joined Intelligent Electronics as COO of its reseller division and later Compaq as vice president of corporate materials. At Compaq, he was responsible for the procurement and management of product inventory.

In 1998, Cook discussed with Jobs the possibility of joining Apple, a company which at that point he says was widely considered to be on "the verge of extinction."

In his Auburn University commencement speech, he recalled how family, friends and colleagues advised him to stay at Compaq, then the largest PC maker, located in Texas, which would keep him closer to his roots in the Gulf Coast and to his favorite football team, Auburn.

"My intuition already knew that joining Apple was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work for the creative genius and to be on the executive team that could resurrect a great American company," Cook said, recalling his conversation with Jobs about joining Apple.

"For the most important decisions in your life, trust your intuition and then work with everything you have to prove it right," he told the commencement audience.

Taking the reins at Apple

Today, as Apple's COO, Cook supervises global sales and operations. He manages Apple's supply chain, sales activities, and service and support worldwide. He also heads Apple's Macintosh division and supervises continued development of strategic reseller and supplier relationships.

"For all of us, intuition is not a substitute for rigorous thinking and hard work, it is simply the lead end," Cook said in his commencement speech.

"We never take short cuts. We attend to every detail. We follow where curiosity leads. We take risks, knowing that risks would sometimes result in failure. But without the possibility of failure, there's no possibility of success."

For the first quarter of 2011, Apple reports record Mac, iPhone and iPad sales and the highest revenue and earnings ever. Revenue grew by 71 percent and earnings grew by 78 percent. The Company sold 16.24 million iPhones, an 86 percent unit growth over the year-ago quarter. The Company also sold 7.33 million iPads and 4.13 million Macs during the quarter.