Today, Tim Cook is one of the most powerful people in Silicon Valley and the CEO of the world’s most valuable company, with Apple’s market value above $870 billion. But, 20 years ago, it took a convincing sales pitch from legendary founder Steve Jobs before he agreed to take a job at Apple.
In early 1998, Jobs had just returned to Apple a year earlier after more than a decade away. The company had been on the edge of failure before his return, and the turnaround was still in its early stages — the iconic iMac had not been released (it came out later that year) and the iPod was still a few years away. So heading there wasn’t the easy decision it might be today.
Recruiters for Apple had been after Cook, a vice president at Compaq, which was then the world’s biggest seller of PCs worldwide. He turned them down several times, he told Charlie Rose in 2014. But then he thought, “I’m going to go out and take the meeting. Steve created the whole industry that I’m in, I’d love to meet him.”
When the pair got together, “Well, I’m just thinking I’m going to meet him and all of a sudden he’s talking about his strategy and his vision,” said Cook.
And Cook was impressed.
“I’d always thought that following the herd was not a good thing… He was doing something totally different,” said Cook. For example, at the meeting, Jobs described to Cook “what later would be called the iMac.”
Cook was taken.
“The way that he talked, and the way the chemistry was in the room, it was just he and I,” he told Charlie Rose. “I looked at the problems Apple had, and I thought you know, I can make a contribution here. And working with him, and this is a privilege of a lifetime.
“And so all of a sudden I thought, I’m doing it. I’m going for it….”
Those around Cook balked.
“Any purely rational consideration of cost and benefits lined up in Compaq’s favor, and the people who knew me best advised me to stay at Compaq,” Cook said in a 2010 commencement speech that he delivered at his alma mater, Auburn University, a year before taking overas Apple CEO.
“One CEO I consulted felt so strongly about it he told me I would be a fool to leave Compaq for Apple.”
Cook did it anyway. Taking the job “didn’t make sense. And yet, my gut said, go for it. And I listened to my gut.”
He joined Apple in 1998 as senior vice president of worldwide operations.
In his 2010 Auburn commencement speech, Cook noted that it was pure intuition that told him to stake his career on Jobs’ vision of Apple’s future.
“There are times in all of our lives when a reliance on gut or intuition just seems more appropriate — when a particular course of action just feels right,” Cook told the graduates. “And interestingly, I’ve discovered it’s in facing life’s most important decisions that intuition seems the most indispensable to getting it right.”
Obviously, the decision served Cook well: He became Apple’s chief operating officer in 2007 and even ran the company briefly in 2009, when Jobs was on medical leave, before becoming CEO when Jobs died in 2011 from pancreatic cancer. Apple was already one of a handful of the world’s biggest companies when Cook took over for Jobs and its market value is now more than 2.5 times what it was in 2011.