Is Steve Jobs fit to run a public company?
Jun 23rd 2009 10:00AM
Updated Dec 4th 2009 2:32PM
Apple Inc. (AAPL) stock has risen 75 percent since January 20th -- soon after the announcement that Steve Jobs would take a leave of absence for health reasons. Those who bought shares are probably delighted that Steve Jobs has not been formally running Apple. But who knows whether Jobs has been holding the puppet strings of his stand-in, Tim Cook, this year.
Jobs is complex -- he is a genius when it comes to designing and marketing innovative consumer products, but he may well have violated the law when it comes to disclosing his health problems and releasing mis-information about Apple's products. He's also obsessively security conscious when it comes to new products -- but that's not a crime.
Evidence of Apple's mis-information was a surprise to me. Four years ago, a senior Apple executive told Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster that Apple had no interest in developing a cheap iPod with no screen. Soon after that leak to Munster, Apple released just that: the iPod Shuffle. Is it illegal for a company to lie to an analyst? If such mis-information was formally announced to shareholders, it would be considered fraud.
But this is small potatoes compared to Apple's failure to disclose Jobs's true health problems. In January Apple said Jobs leave of absence was due to a hormonal imbalance. But reports that Jobs got a liver transplant during that absence -- and speculation that cancer tumors had spread from his pancreas to his liver-- suggest that Apple was either lying about the true reason for his absence or there was a sudden change in his health.
And since word of the liver transplant came out at the same time as news that Apple had sold more than 1 million units of the iPhone 3G S on its first weekend, Apple may have paired potentially negative news with a positive development to blunt the stock-market impact of the transplant. By blunting this impact, Apple may have limited the possible financial damages of the liver transplant news.
This raises questions about what it means to be fit to run a public company. One key measure -- Jobs obviously has severe health problems and his last act as CEO will be picking a successor who can keep the innovation going. This could be impossible, but it is too early to judge Jobs on this standard of fitness.
A second measure is whether the CEO drives the company to ever-improved financial performance and higher stock market value. By that standard, Jobs has been an exceptionally fit CEO -- although there have been periods where the stock and Apple's financial performance have stumbled quite significantly -- such as the time when the stock fell 59 percent from $200 in December 2007 to $82 in January 2009.
A third measure of fitness is a CEO's respect for corporate governance standards. By that measure, Jobs has come about as close to failing as a person can get. Jobs's tendency to control information appears to keep Apple's board in the maximum amount of darkness that is legally permissible.
Jobs appears to believe that Apple's board is a piece of corporate window dressing rather than an essential agent of shareholders. Unfortunately, a look at General Motors board -- which supported former CEO Rick Wagoner through a 98 percent decline in its stock price -- reveals that Jobs is not alone in treating Apple's board with contempt.
So Jobs is very fit to be CEO in one respect and unfit in others. Regrettably, those unfit ways will overwhelm the fit ones.
Peter Cohan is president of Peter S. Cohan & Associates. He also teaches management at Babson College. His eighth book is You Can't Order Change: Lessons from Jim McNerney's Turnaround at Boeing. He has no financial interest in the securities mentioned.