TIM COOK–Apple’s CEO Superman

PALO ALTO–The only thing you can say about Apple Inc.’s Tim Cook with certainty is that he’s the first CEO of a Fortune 500 company personally to come out as gay. According to Forbes Magazine, he is also the 27th most powerful person in the world.

He takes in hundreds of millions of dollars a year in salary and stock options, but the exact amount isn’t really known, even by Cook himself. But one thing is for certain. He will make damn sure you or anyone else won’t find out. “Nobody’s business,” he says, for he covets his privacy like he covets his solitude.

He was a loner even as a youngster growing up in Robertsdale, an Alabama town of some 2,300 people and a tenth as many farms. The main drag is called Milwaukee Street. Just off it runs a road named Florida where Lee’s Drug Store

 

Robertsdale, Alabama

has done business for over half a century. Cook’s mother Geraldine (who died in 2015) worked there as he was growing up, and Cook, himself, spent a few months working there as well. He graduated from Robertsdale High School in 1978, was voted the “Most Studious” and was salutatorian of his graduating class.

It wasn’t his studies in Alabama that would leave the biggest impression, however. It was the flaunting of white supremacy by the state’s government that made him comment years later: “Alabama was too slow on equality for African-Americans. We were too slow on interracial marriage, and we are still too slow for equality for the LGBT community.”

Cook had seen it, after all, first hand. His father Donald worked full-time in a shipyard, and they were together when the pair happened upon a Ku Klux Klan cross burning.

“Growing up in Alabama in the 60s, I saw the devastating impact of discrimination,” Cook remembered, in a speech he gave at the United Nations.

“Remarkable people were denied opportunity and treated without basic human dignity solely because of the color of their skin. And not far from where I lived, I remember very vividly witnessing a cross-burning at such a remarkable family. This image was permanently impeded in my brain, and it would change my life forever.

Tim Cook’s Yearbook Photo

“For me, the cross-burning was a symbol of ignorance, of hatred, and a fear of anyone different from the majority. I could never understand it, and I knew then that America’s and Alabama’s history would always be scarred by the hatred it represented.”

Yet for the young man who would later discover his gay sexual orientation, it would not be the most severe form of discrimination he would witness.

“From these early days, I have seen, and I have felt many other types of discrimination. And all of them were rooted in fear of people that were different from the majority.”

On his office walls at Apple’s Cupertino headquarters, Cook hung portraits of Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as permanent reminders of their sacrifice for human rights and human dignity. “Their images inspire me,” Cook said, “They serve as a reminder to me every day that regardless of the path one chooses, there are fundamental commitments that should be a part of one’s journey.”

Cook became CEO of Apple, Inc. by a fluke of fate and his own gut instinct. After graduating from Auburn University in 1982 with a BS degree in Industrial Engineering, and gaining a Master’s of Business Administration from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, Cook went to work at IBM where he was moved through the management chain until he became Director of North American fulfillment. At IBM, he was known for his work ethic (working on both Christmas and New Year’s Day so that the company would make its sales goals). And he was popular employee, even to senior executive Richard Daugherty who said that Cook had “a manner that really caused people to enjoy working with him.”

After spending 12 years with IBM, Cooked jumped to a company called Intelligent Electronics, a rather staid and traditional computer reseller corporation whose clients were corporate customers, educational institutions, and governmental agencies in the United States. It was a move to supplement his knowledge base in large group sales, and as if to prove the point, Cook rose to become Chief Operating Officer of the Resale Division just as the company was bought by General Electric in 1997.

Repeatedly turning down offers to join Apple, Cook next joined Compaq, the world’s biggest retailer of computers worldwide. It was at the time that Apple founder Steve Jobs had just returned to the company, and the long-term outlook for Apple was dim. But Jobs kept after Cook to at least sit down with him for a meeting. But, it was only after much prodding that Cook even accepted the invitation—and not really because he considered taking the job.

“I’m going to go out and take the meeting,” Cook told news anchor Charlie Rose in 2014. “Steve created the whole industry that I’m in, and 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.

“I’d always thought that following the herd was not a good thing… He was doing something totally different,” said Cook. “He was describing some desk computing system that would later be called the iMac.”

While logically, it made no sense from a dollar and cents point of view, it was all about the camaraderie that day.

“The way that he talked, and the way the chemistry was in the room, it was just he and I,” Cook 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.”

And go for it did. Cook resigned from Compaq after just six months and made the move to a company that was losing money, barely limping on life support. It is a fair statement to say that without Tim Cook, there would be no Apple, Inc. as it exists today. At a crucial time, with the company on life support, Cook became Apple’s Senior VP for Worldwide Operations.

He went immediately to work closing factories and warehouses run by the company where unsold inventory was just taking up space. By outsourcing supplies and parts, he cut costs and targeted goals. He projected the importance of flash memory, and it became an integral part of every product Apple produced post-2005.

While some think that all gays are creative, it wasn’t Cook’s creativity that Apple needed. It was his skill with keeping track of numbers’ end of the business.  While Apple co-founder Steve Jobs came up with the concepts like the iPad and iPhone, Tim Cook turned the ideas into a reality by finding the suppliers to make the parts overseas, quickly and precisely. And far more economically than could be accomplished in the US which had long since fallen behind the Far East in its speed of manufacturing.

In 2004, Jobs took a medical leave of absence to have surgery for pancreatic cancer. During that time, Cook took over leadership of the company, with no long-term aspirations about becoming the company CEO. However, in recognition of his accomplishments at Apple, Inc., Cook was named COO of the company in 2007. In 2009, when Steve Job retook additional medical leave, Cook stepped in to run every aspect of the business.

It was then that Jobs learned he needed a liver transplant, and Tim Cook was the first to offer to donate a portion of his liver to his boss. Even though the two shared the share rare blood type, Jobs would not consider the offer.

He reportedly screamed, “I would never let you do that. Never. Never.”

According to Cook, “Steve only yelled at me four or five times during the 13 years I knew him, and this was one of them.”

The pair of executives became a one-two punch for Apple, Inc. They turned around a billion-dollar loss at the time of Cook’s hiring to make Apple, Inc. It ultimately became the most valuable company in American history and the first to be worth one trillion dollars.

More than just becoming the leader in electronic innovation and technology, Apple, in Cook’s mind,” accomplished something far more meaningful.

“In addition to finding a company and a founder unlike any other,” Cook said, “I found at Apple, a company that deeply believed in advancing humanity, through its products and through the equality of all its employees. Much has changed at Apple since I started, these values which are at the very heart of our company, remain the same.

“These values guide us to make our products accessible to everyone. People with disabilities often find themselves in a struggle to have their human dignity acknowledged. They are frequently left in the shadows of technological advancements, that is a source of empowerment and attainment for others.

“But Apple’s engineers push back against this unacceptable reality. They go to extraordinary lengths to make our products accessible to those with various disabilities from blindness and deafness to various muscular disorders. And we never, ever analyze the return on investment. We do it because it is just and right. And that is what respect for human dignity requires, and it is a part of Apple that I am especially proud.

“These values also educate the companies we work with on their human rights. We provide training for over two million people around the world—many of whom work in our factories. These values lead us to insist that the companies we work with comply with our code of conduct, which in many cases go far beyond laws. It all comes down to human dignity.

“These values have recently guided us to support legislation that demands equality and non-discrimination for all employees, regardless of who they love. This legislation, known as the Employment Non-discrimination Act, prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. I have longed believe in this and Apple has implemented protections for all our employees, even when the laws did not.

“Now is the time to write these rules of basic dignity into the book of law. Human rights and dignity are great philosophical principles. But the hard work of executing these principles depends on our individual acts every day.

“The late Robert Kennedy spoke about the smallest efforts of each one of us. He said, ‘Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. Each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope. Those ripples build a current, which can sweep down the mightiest wall of oppression and resistance.’

“Each generation is presented with its own unique opportunities to address inequality and injustice,” Cook said. “To respect human rights and the dignity and the worth of the human person. This work is never finished, but I am sure it is possible.”

Cook outwardly spoke about non-discrimination and equality often. Still, it came as a shock to many in corporate America when he came out as gay in an opinion piece he wrote for Bloomberg Business Week in 2014.

“While I’ve never denied my sexuality, I haven’t publicly acknowledged it either, until now,” he wrote. “So let me be clear. I’m proud to be gay, and I consider being gay one of the greatest gifts God has given me.”

Even though the fact had been rumored for a decade, Cook’s eloquent essay struck a chord with the financial and business community that reacted positively and with support.

Bob Witeck, a Washington marketing and business strategist on LGBT issues, reacted to the article by stating, “What is sublime are the few words he chose with care and his stature. As a global business leader, (Cook) poured sunlight onto millions of more people around the world and bent the world’s economy itself towards equality and acceptance.”

Writing in Bloomberg rather than in gay publication also had a profound effect on its reach across the financial world. Cook used his self-outing to serve as a role model for rising executives and students everywhere. Additionally, he took that moment to reflect on how being gay had actually benefited his ability to head the world’s largest company.

“Being gay has given me a deeper understanding of what it means to be in the minority and provided a window into the challenges that people in other minority groups deal with every day. It’s made me more empathetic, which has led to a richer life. It’s been tough and uncomfortable at times, but it has given me the confidence to be myself, to follow my own path, and to rise above adversity and bigotry. It’s also given me the skin of a rhinoceros, which comes in handy when you’re the CEO of Apple,” he wrote in Bloomberg.

While never a gay advocate, Cook said that his decision to put his privacy aside and make his sexuality public was an essential step in championing human rights and equality for all.

“I don’t consider myself an activist, but I’ve realized how much I’ve benefitted from the sacrifice of others,” he wrote in Bloomberg Business. “So if hearing that the CEO of Apple is gay can help someone who is struggling to come to terms who he or she is, or bring comfort to anyone who feels alone, or inspire people to insist on their equality, then it is worth the trade of my own privacy.”

A health fanatic and a long-time cyclist, Cook works out at a private gym, away from Apple’s corporate facility available to all employees. He rises each morning by 3:45 and personally answers emails sent to his publicly available email address—[email protected]. He is in the gym by 5 and in his corporate office by 7 am, often the first to arrive, and usually, the last to leave.

While this type of schedule leaves little time for a personal life, Cook had been linked periodically with his former boyfriend, Benjamin Ling. Ling is the founding partner of Bling Capital and formerly held senior positions at Khosla Ventures, Google, YouTube, Facebook, and Badoo.

Minutes after the Bloomberg Business essay was published, Ling took to his Twitter account.

Recently, Cook was made political news by having a private dinner with President Trump addressing the inadequacies of the ever-increasing trade tariffs on China, a move that would impact Apple, Inc. far more than its chief rival Samsung who manufactures its high-tech electronics in Korea.

“I thought he made a very compelling argument,” Trump said. “It’s tough for Apple to pay tariffs if it’s competing with a very good company that’s not.”

Ultimately, Trump decided to push some tariffs into December to avoid “ruining Christmas.” While Trump said that Cook “made a good case,” while discussing the tartiffs, there are many who question why the meeting should have ever been necessary.

“On the one hand, we are fortunate to have a CEO with the power to speak to the President one-on-one, whenever he feels the need to,” according to an Apple executive who requested anonymity. “On the other hand, it is sad when the CEO of the world’s largest company is forced to explain rudimentary economics to the presumed leader of the free world.”

For Cook, his expertice in trade economics has been not only a major factor in his leadership of Apple in a $1 trillion corporation, but all his enormous personal worth as well.  After paying for his nephew’s college education, Cook has repeatedly said that he intends to give the entirety of his fortune, currently estimated to be just shy of one billion dollars, to charities focused on LGBTQ rights, racial non-discrimination, and equality for all.

Richard Hack is an award-winning author and journalist; and an outspoken advocate for equality in business and government, as well as neutrality in news media.

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