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As a die-hard Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) fan, I completely acknowledge that CEO Steve Jobs, with his incredible charisma and peerless ability to give consumers what they want, has been instrumental in the company's incredible revival over the past decade.
But while I trust Jobs to make phenomenal products that I'll love using, I'd never trust him with my investing dollars. Here's why.
1. He's secretive
I'm not complaining about the fanatical secrecy Jobs maintains regarding Apple's upcoming products. However dictatorial it may come across, it's ultimately good for Apple's business. (Perhaps he's learned from a teenage incident, recounted in co-founder Steve Wozniak's autobiography, in which Jobs completely ruined an elaborate high school prank he and Wozniak had cooked up because he couldn't resist boasting about it.) But Jobs' apparent desire to control every morsel of information about himself and Apple extends into darker, more dubious territory as well.
Jobs has suffered two major health scares since he regained the CEO spot at Apple. In both cases, he either withheld this serious information from his shareholders, or misled the press and the public for years until he was forced to come clean.
In 2004, he didn't announce to the public that he'd successfully beaten a rare and mercifully treatable form of pancreatic cancer until the danger had passed. Two years later, when Jobs delivered the keynote at Apple's annual Worldwide Developer Conference looking unusually gaunt, Apple's PR began sending out a string of ever-changing excuses that persisted for more than two years. Finally, in early 2009, after Jobs announced he was suffering from a "hormone imbalance," the near-emaciated CEO announced his health problems were more complex than he'd thought, and took a six-month leave. Months later, we learned that Jobs had actually received a life-saving liver transplant.
If Jobs was frightened for his own health, or embarrassed by his own frailty, I can sympathize. But shareholders needed to know this information. Jobs not only didn't tell them, but also allowed Apple representatives to flat-out lie about his condition. If he wouldn't announce that his life was in danger, what other materially important information might he decline to reveal?
2. He's sulky, and sometimes selfish
In 2006, Apple and Jobs were embroiled in a stock-option backdating scandal similar to what tarred large swaths of Wall Street. Back in 2001, when his existing stock options were underwater, Jobs had strong-armed Apple's board into issuing him a whole new set of options, backdated to give him an instant $20 million paper profit. (In fairness, he later swapped those options for restricted stock that bore a lesser value.)
Mysteriously, it was accused that prior meeting notes were either altered or fabricated to justify the new grant -- a big legal no-no. Nancy R. Heinen, Apple's former general counsel, settled with the SEC for $2.2 million over the incident, without admitting fault. Jobs claimed no knowledge of any wrongdoing, and while he and Apple settled a shareholder lawsuit regarding the grants out of court, he was never charged with any crime.
This whole mess is suspect enough -- but the reason Jobs pushed for the new grant in the first place casts him in an even worse light. In a 2008 interview with the SEC, excerpted in a Forbes article the following year, Jobs sulked that he'd felt underappreciated by the board. "Everybody likes to be recognized by his peers," Jobs said in the interview. "I felt that the board wasn't really doing the same with me." Jobs would have preferred it, he said, if the board had spontaneously offered him the new grant, instead of forcing him to ask.
Jobs' remarks seem to display a third-grade petulance, and a massive, fragile ego, that don't exactly scream "responsible governance." It's wonderful to have a genius at the helm of your company -- but sometimes, it's even better to have an adult.
3. He clings to cash
Apple's cash hoard currently hovers around $40 billion -- not unprecedented, but certainly far larger than Apple would seem to need. The company makes few acquisitions, and most of its buys to date haven't required anywhere near that much cash. Yet despite its pile of loot, Apple doesn't yet pay a dividend. All that money just sits around, earning decent returns, but doing shareholders very little good.
Why maintain such a miserly grip on the company's bank accounts? I've got a theory that seems to fit, given Jobs' well-documented love of Apple -- and monumental ego. After being ousted from Apple in 1985, Jobs returned in 1996 to find the business he built teetering on the brink of death. His leadership revived it, but I've begun to suspect over the years that Jobs views Apple as his legacy. I think he's holding on to all that cash as a safeguard against future disaster. By keeping Apple's bank accounts preposterously fat, Jobs can increase the chances that Apple will endure as a monument to his accomplishments long after he's gone.
That's all well and good, but the amount of cash on Apple's books long ago passed the threshold for sensible reserves. The money doesn't belong to Jobs; it belongs to Apple's shareholders. If Jobs can't find a suitable use for it that addresses Apple's real, present needs and concerns, the least he could do is return it.
4. Apple will be (mostly) fine without him
If Jobs stepped down as CEO today, I have no doubt shares would plummet. His vision, his leadership, and his personal magnetism have been essential to the company's success. But part of Jobs' success has involved finding the right people to help him run Apple. And even if he goes, Apple will still have two of the many talented, dedicated people who helped Jobs elevate the company to the top of the industry: Jon Ive and Tim Cook.
Ive is the genius designer behind every major Apple product since the iMac. Admirers hail him for caring as much about how Apple's products are manufactured as how they ultimately look. Ive's string of form-and-function triumphs include the aluminum unibody structure of Apple's MacBook Pro line, and steel band that both reinforces the iPhone 4's chassis and serves as three different wireless antennae for the device.
Cook is Apple's chief operating officer, in charge of Macs, service, support, and the company's supply chain. Thanks to him, Apple's become one of the most efficient manufacturers in the electronics business, using contract factories to maintain lean supply chains and high profits. He ran Apple in Jobs' stead during the CEO's 2004 and 2009 health-related absences, and if the company didn't exactly flourish during those periods, it still performed well. He's been known to start work at 4:30 a.m., and hold Sunday night meetings with his staff to prepare for even more meetings on Monday.
Both men are young, healthy, and notably fanatical about their chosen fields. Both are devoted to Apple, and share Jobs' obsession with detail and perfection. But both Ive and Cook are also conspicuously humble and publicity-shy, living lifestyles far smaller than their considerable means might suggest. In short, they seem to mirror all of Jobs' best qualities, and none of his weaknesses.
Stevemageddon? Not so much
Will Apple be the same without Steve Jobs? Certainly not. Will it enjoy the same phenomenal heights of success? Maybe. But would it be governed by calmer, stronger, more responsible people, whose behavior suggests they hold far more shareholder-friendly philosophies? Absolutely.
In short, feel free to retire any time, Steve. The company will be in good hands without you -- and so will your investors' money.
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