Jeff Williams: Apple CEO Material

One thing became abundantly clear after analyzing Apple's recent earnings report: Jeff Williams is doing a phenomenal job. As senior vice president of Operations, Williams is tasked with making sure the Apple machine is well-oiled and in tip-top shape, not only capable of producing more than 100 million iOS devices in a quarter, but building flexibility into the system to handle annual hardware updates that would make most hardware companies quiver with fear. I considered Jeff Williams as Tim Cook's successor before Cook finished his first day as CEO, and I feel even more confident about that today. Regardless of what the future brings, people need to start watching Jeff Williams because he is executing at levels that few are able to achieve. 

A look at Jeff Williams' background would quickly bring up a comparsion to Tim Cook.  Both Williams and Cook earned an MBA from Duke, spent time working at IBM, and joined Apple in 1998. Cook was Apple's Chief Operating Officer (a position Apple never filled once Cook was promoted to CEO), while Williams was vice president of Operations, seeing a promotion to SVP after Antennagate. Fortune called Williams: "Tim Cook's Tim Cook."

Williams is in charge of Apple's immense supply chain and production process. More granular duties include overseeing Apple's relationships with suppliers, like Foxconn, and negotiating supplier contracts that are so large, the broader tech industry is often crippled as a result (HP TouchPad comes to mind). Williams also oversees product quality across the company. 

I don't think there are many people that would object to the notion that Jeff Williams is CEO material. From being able to work through problems to motivating others, there probably aren't many hardware companies that would pass up the opportunity to be led by Williams. Why is Jeff Williams Apple CEO material?

1) Values Collaboration. Apple is run by committee comprised of a small group of top Apple executives. This structure has been around for years, with the primary objective of fostering collaboration between groups and departments. If a new iPhone is to be announced in a few weeks, having the entire company (via SVPs) focused on that product can lead to better results. I view this type of structure as supportive of someone with Tim Cook's personality and management style; characteristics that Williams share. Listening to varying viewpoints and guiding direction, while focusing on more typical CEO-like duties, such as building company culture and representing the company to the public, would match a operations-minded individual focused on day-to-day operations much better than a product person thinking of the next big thing. 

2) Understands Products. Running Apple's operations leads to copious amounts of time with products and trying to think of ways to source, collect, and then assemble components into finished goods. To do this while maintaining excruciatingly difficult quality standards makes the job that much tougher. Products are very important to Apple and Williams is likely the most qualified candidate in this area. 

3) Embraces Details. One of the key differences between Apple and other companies is the degree to which executives are involved with the details at Apple. It reportedly was the reason Mark Papermaster's tenure was cut short at Apple, and most likely represents the biggest hurdle for outside talent embracing the Apple philosophy.  Having led worldwide operations for iPod and iPhone for years, Williams is well-trained and accustomed to focusing on details, while not losing perceptive of the big picture. 

Judging by Apple's financials, as well as Apple's ability to attract top hires from various industries, Tim Cook is successfully leading Apple. Looking over the next 5-10 years, keen Apple observers can begin to see where Apple is headed, and there is no reason why anyone other than Tim Cook (and Jony Ive) will lead Apple in that direction. As a public company, good corporate governance would require Apple's board to have a CEO succession plan in place for obvious reasons. I suspect that Jeff Williams is indeed on that list. While the board would also look outside Apple, on behalf of shareholders, just to leave no stone unturned, I have low confidence that someone without a few years of Apple experience will see much success leading Apple. 

While there are literally thousands of people that contributed to Apple's very strong holiday quarter, Jeff Williams stood out as executing at the highest level for driving such strong unit production growth without sacrificing quality. With the Apple Watch launch approaching, I'm sure Williams will continue to play a key role in overseeing the process of turning a collection of components into a finished product . Williams' stock is on the rise inside Apple.

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