Apple rightly keeps chairman, CEO roles split

November 16, 2011

By Robert Cyran
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Apple has rightly decided to keep the roles of chairman and chief executive split. The divide may have looked temporary when Tim Cook became boss in August, leaving the ailing Steve Jobs running the board. But just a month after the death of the company’s co-founder and long-time leader, the directors have decided to appoint long-time Apple director Arthur Levinson as chairman.

It’s a smart move. On one level, it recognizes the obvious: that filling Jobs’s shoes is difficult for any one person. Levinson can take care of the relatively mundane tasks of running the board and guiding strategic matters such as mergers and alliances and what to do with Apple’s $82 billion cash pile.

Levinson is a solid choice: as chairman and chief executive of Genentech, he developed a good reputation for dealing with headstrong researchers and oversaw a tricky relationship with Roche. These experiences should come in handy. Apple may warm to the idea of making larger acquisitions than in the past. And the company will find it increasingly difficult to avoid becoming entangled in alliances as the media and computing worlds collide. With that in mind, it should be no surprise that Disney’s chief executive, Robert Iger, has just been appointed to Apple’s board.

The real importance of this separation, however, is that it allows Cook to concentrate on what really matters. And that’s running the most valuable tech company in the world, managing its incredibly complex multi-nation supply chain and coming up with new iconic devices. Cook’s record proves he can handle the first two. Whether he can lead Apple’s designers and engineers to success in the third is a good question. But it’s usually easier to succeed as a manager if you have a limited number of tasks at one time. The split helps in this regard.

It’s also good corporate governance, which the board fell short on as Jobs’s illnesses took a more pronounced effect on his ability to run the company full time. Many investors and employees may still wish there were just one person in charge, as long as it were Steve Jobs. With that sadly out of the question, the board has made the right choice in keeping two at the top.

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