With attention focused on Apple's (NASDAQ: AAPL) new phones, market share, and a potential deal with China Mobile, investors may be missing the bigger picture.
It's not that those things are unimportant. They drive short-term movements in the stock price, although perhaps not as much as Carl Icahn's tweets. But for those of you in this for the long haul, there remains a bigger issue out there: Can Apple be as innovative and execute as sharply without Steve Jobs as it did with him?
To say the loss of a founding CEO is a game-changer is an understatement. A founding leader gives a company its vision. He establishes its mission in the world. He understands better than anyone the relationship it maintains with its customers. He embodies the corporate culture.
Those are not small matters. They're huge. And it probably wouldn't have come as a surprise if Apple's stock price cratered after Jobs' death on Oct. 5, 2011. But it didn't. Instead, it nearly doubled off its $367 Oct. 5 price over the next year. That type of stock performance in the wake of Jobs' loss defied reason. But stock prices, in the short-term, are rarely tethered to reason.
Apple bears would have you believe that every great idea that materialized in Cupertino originated with Jobs; now that he's gone, so is the game-changing innovation. If you think that's the case, read Jobs' biography by Walter Isaacson. Even design chief Jony Ive was among those who felt snubbed that Jobs received so much credit for Apple's innovative ideas.
But it was Jobs who created the Apple culture that fostered innovation. And it was Jobs who served at its chief steward. Apple will innovate without Jobs. But will Apple be able to innovate in a way that maintains its relationship with loyal customers? Will it be able to innovate in a way that introduces new products we never wanted, but suddenly can't do without?
Following in the footsteps of its rival?
We can gain some perspective by looking at history. What happens when a tech giant's founding leader leaves? The easy comparison here is to Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT). We all know Microsoft's track record since Bill Gates stepped down in 2000, handing the reins to Steve Ballmer. By many accounts, the next 12 years were a disaster. Investors were so happy to see it come to an end, Microsoft's stock shot up by more than 7% on the news of Ballmer's retirement.
Microsoft didn't exactly flounder under Ballmer. The company nearly tripled revenue and just about doubled its earnings per share. But Microsoft lagged where it really mattered. It got flat-out toasted by Apple and Google in the big technological transitions. With the wild success of Android software and Samsung mobile hardware, it's easy to see how Apple could "Microsoften," to steal a term from the Fool's Alyce Lomax.
Showing the way
But other stories haven't been so grim. Consider Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ). Forget what's it's done recently, and look to the past. After Bill Hewlett stepped down as CEO in 1978, the company grew its revenues from $2.4 billion to $20 billion over the next 14 years, a 16.4% annual clip. How did it do it? Six years after Hewlett, the company introduced inkjet printing to the world.
From 1992 to 1997, HP grew revenues by an average of 24% per year, as CEO Lewis Platt took the company beyond computers and printers and into a variety of digital products. It was named Forbes' company of the year in 1995.
By the time Platt stepped down, HP's stock price had mushroomed by nearly 2,800% over what it was selling when Hewlett was running the company. At the start of 1978, H-P's stock was selling for $1.14. By March 5, 1999, it was selling for more than $33.
Over that same time frame, the Dow gained about 1,140%.
Like Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Hewlett and David Packard started their company out of a garage and guided it to greatness. Along the way, they built a culture at H-P and made sure that culture carried over after their departure from everyday operations. Today, we can read about it as "the H-P Way," and CEOs like John Young and Platt came to embody it as much as their predecessors.
Is there an "Apple Way?"
The big question in Cupertino isn't about pre-orders on the colorful iPhone 5c, but whether Jobs created and fostered a lasting culture at Apple. Bears look at plastic phones, bungled map apps, and declining worldwide market share as signs that Jobs failed in this regard.
But Apple execs like Ive and Jobs' successor, Tim Cook, have said otherwise. In fact, it was Cook's words, not Jobs', which came to be seen as the description of Apple's equivalent of the H-P Way. It was dubbed "The Cook Doctrine." Here's a snippet:
... we don't settle for anything less than excellence in every group in the company, and we have the self-honesty to admit when we're wrong and the courage to change. And I think, regardless of who is in what job, those values are so embedded in this company that Apple will do extremely well.
Long-term investors will need to keep their eye on what may be Jobs' most important creation: a corporate culture we can call "The Apple Way." If he succeeded, there are good things ahead.
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