By Yinka Adegoke
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Tim Cook, the small-town football fanatic turned chief executive of the world's largest technology company, long faced the question of whether he had the same remarkable vision as his predecessor Steve Jobs.
The question became even more important on Wednesday when Jobs resigned from Apple Inc and Cook took his place, with Jobs' recommendation.
Apple's long-time chief operating officer, Cook was confirmed as CEO by the company's board, and Jobs was named chairman. Jobs has been on medical leave.
Cook now must prove that his technology instincts are as sharp as when he joined Apple in 1998 after leaving the once-mighty Compaq, then the world's top PC maker. At the time Apple was barely afloat.
His gut decision during his first meeting with Jobs not only changed his life but altered the course of technology history.
"My most significant discovery so far in my life was the result of one single decision, my decision to join Apple," Cook told Auburn University students at his alma mater last year.
"Working at Apple was never in any plan that I outlined for myself, but was without a doubt the best decision that I ever made."
Now, as leader of one of the most highly recognizable brands, Cook will be called upon to satisfy investors and consumers who know Apple as a technology pioneer.
People who have known and worked with Cook over the past two decades use terms like "brilliant" and "phenomenal" to describe him.
He is also called a supply chain genius at a company that values operational efficiency nearly as much as design. Still, after years of relative anonymity as Jobs's No. 2, Cook is in some ways untested.
"Tim has been de facto CEO for some time and the company has been hugely successful," said Colin Gillis, an analyst at BGC Financial. "The vision and the road map are intact."
Cook started taking on more responsibility after Jobs was diagnosed with a rare form of pancreatic cancer and had a liver transplant. Jobs is on his third medical leave.
Despite his ill health and ongoing speculation about if and when Jobs would leave Apple, he turned up time and again at milestone company events to the delight and surprise of Wall Street and Main Street.
IN IT TO WIN
One of the things Cook shares with Jobs is sheer competitiveness.
"He's not in it for the fame or the ego or the money. He's in it to win," said Greg Petsch, who was Cook's boss at Compaq Computer in the late 1990s.
For a graphic on Tim Cook's impact on margins, click on: http://r.reuters.com/vuq28r
How Cook got his job is part of Apple legend. As recounted in the Wall Street Journal, Jobs, then newly returned to Apple to reinvigorate the company, had turned down several applicants in characteristically brusque fashion, including walking out midway through one interview.
By Cook's own account, they took to each other instantly, and Cook made his fateful decision. He was told he would be a fool to leave Compaq for an also-ran on the verge of bankruptcy. But his mind was made up.
"I listened to my intuition, not the left side of my brain," Cook said.
Jobs and Cook have balanced each other ever since. Where Jobs is famous for his explosive temper, firing employees on the spot, Cook is described as down-to-earth and soft-spoken.
Where Jobs is known for his New Age interest in vegetarianism and spirituality, Cook, who is from Alabama, loves Auburn U football and is a fitness fanatic.
And where Jobs enjoyed rockstar-like fame early in his career as a pioneer of the computer era, the intensely private Cook toiled for years in obscurity, an operations wonk who became chief lieutenant at one of the world's coolest companies.
A person who worked with Cook at Apple said, "He has a steel trap of a mind."
"He not only knows everything about what he's doing, he knows everything about what you're doing, too."
Some say Cook's achievements, not to mention his skillful management of Apple's resurgent Mac unit, show he is much more than a by-the-numbers supply chain expert.
"They call him an operational genius, but Tim's a lot more strategic than he's been getting credit for," said Petsch.
Although operations executives are not generally considered CEO material, Petsch pointed to former Intel CEO Craig Barrett's rise to the top from COO jobs.
"He is very highly regarded internally at Apple," said Ashok Kumar, an analyst at Rodman & Renshaw. "From a succession perspective, they could not possibly identify a better candidate. He has a track record to back it up."
Others argue that it is outdated to think of Apple as simply a vehicle for Jobs's savant-like technology vision.
Jobs has for years been surrounded by a superbly talented management team, executives like design chief Jonathan Ive, mobile software guru Scott Forstall and product marketing head Phil Schiller, who will be there for Cook.
There is little doubt that much of the Apple mystique revolves around Jobs. His far-sighted, sometimes counterintuitive approach has guided Apple to a string of triumphs.
Although Jobs was involved in strategic decisions Cook has been running the company day-to-day.
Cook has acknowledged that Apple's headquarters in Cupertino, California, is a long way from Robertsdale, Alabama, calling his journey "improbable."
"I am where I am in life because my parents sacrificed more than they should have, because of teachers, professors, friends and mentors who cared more than they had to, and because of Steve Jobs and Apple," Cook said last year at Auburn.
Cook was the middle of three boys in a family described by people in Robertsdale as "real nice." His parents, Geraldine and Donald, have become local celebrities of a sort, as their son's star has risen.
At Robertsdale High School, Cook finished No. 2 in his class of roughly 175 students in 1978, was president of the National Honor Society, played in the band, and was voted "most studious," according to the yearbook.
He earned a degree in industrial engineering from Auburn in 1982, and received his MBA from Duke University in 1988.
Cook's technology career traces the arc of the early days of the computer revolution.
He spent 12 years at IBM working in distribution and manufacturing in North America before moving in 1994 to computer reseller Intelligent Electronics, where he developed a reputation as an operations maven.
"The guy is just a phenomenal operating executive," said Mark Briggs, who was Cook's boss at IE. Briggs remembers a highly analytical executive, focused on metrics, who overhauled the company's supply chain.
"He just works all the time, that's his life."
Compaq had hired Cook in 1997 to be vice president of worldwide materials, but he spent only six months at the Houston-based company before defecting to Apple.
His impact on Apple was swift. The company, which had reported a $1 billion loss in fiscal 1997, swung to a profit in fiscal 1998.
Apple simplified its product lines, cut the number of distributors and resellers, and outsourced some manufacturing, among other changes. This had the effect of reducing bloated inventory to a fifth of levels in the previous year.
Gross margin, which stood at 19 percent in 1997, surged to 25 percent in 1998 and climbed to 39.4 percent by fiscal 2010.
Cook took over as head of global sales in 2000, and was appointed to lead Apple's Mac division in 2004. He was promoted to the COO spot in 2005.
He was Jobs's go-to guy.
(Reporting by Yinka Adegoke; Editing by Toni Reinhold)